• Sungai Watch is the latest initiative from Gary and Sam Bencheghib, whose Make a Change platform promotes ocean plastic clean-up.
  • Make a Change has partnered with German tech start-up Plastic Fischer to test floating trash booms for rivers and smaller trash blocks for streams on Bali’s waterways.
  • They want the project to be implemented around the world.

In the summer of 2017, brothers Gary and Sam Bencheghib rowed down Indonesia’s most polluted river, the Citarum, on two kayaks made from plastic bottles.

This initiative uses technology and trash booms to clean up plastic from rivers before it reaches the oceans.
Image: REUTERS/Johannes P. Christo

Two months later, they paddle-boarded their way along with two of New York City’s most polluted waterways.

“At the rate that we are destroying our planet, we believe that no idea is crazy enough to protect it,” says Gary, who founded Make A Change with Sam 10 years ago to help clean up the beaches on their home island of Bali.

Fast-forward to 2020. Younger brother Sam is just weeks away from completing a coast-to-coast run across the United States to raise awareness of the plastic pollution problem – and Gary is preparing to launch Make A Change’s latest initiative to solve the plastic crisis at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos.

Cleaning up

Called Sungai Watch – from the Indonesian for the river – it’s an online platform that uses GIS (Geographic Information System) mapping and artificial intelligence (AI) to see details in rivers of up to 10 centimetres.

Gary, pictured, as he installs a number of Trashbooms in one of Bali’s rivers
Image: makeachange.world

“Imagine watching the cleanup of the world’s most polluted river in real-time,” says Gary, who hopes it will become the go-to platform to clean rivers around the globe.

For now, his ambition is to install 100 trash barriers in Bali’s rivers to catch the plastic waste before it reaches the ocean.

Around 90% of the marine plastic transported by rivers to the ocean originates from just 10 waterways. Indonesia is second only to China as the world’s largest contributor of this kind of a waste to the ocean plastic problem – with four of its rivers among the top 20 polluters globally.

Bali’s pollution problem is so bad the government declared a “garbage emergency” in 2018. Tourists arriving on the beach at Sanur, Denpasar, in April that year had to pick their way through the debris.

After the brothers’ two-week expedition rowing down the Citarum, Indonesia deployed military troops to clean up rivers.

Trash booms

The trash booms consist of PVC pipes as a floater and galvanized stainless steel mesh that functions as a catching net.
Image: Plasticfischer.com

Make a Change has partnered with German tech start-up Plastic Fischer to test out floating trash booms for rivers and smaller trash blocks for streams on Bali’s waterways.

Each day, the waste that’s captured is collected and taken to a mobile sorting station, where it’s washed and weighed before being sent off for recycling.

Trash booms are built using cheap, local materials – stainless steel and galvanized steel wire mesh, suspended from PVC pipes.

Karsten Hirsch, CEO of Plastic Fischer, says, “We are convinced that we need a cheap solution that you can build within a few days, that you can do it on your own and put it into every river in the world.”

Turning the tide on plastic

The launch of the first trash boom on a tributary of the Ayung River, Bali’s most important waterway, was attended by Dr Ir. Safri Burhanuddin, Coordinating Minister of Maritime Affairs, who praised Make A Change and reconfirmed the country’s commitment to solving its plastic pollution problem.

“The government has committed to the UN and the world that we have to reduce at least 70% of the marine litter to the sea by 2025…Gary has made a movement to make sure Indonesia achieves this target.”

As Gary prepares to launch Sungai Watch globally in Davos, he says, “If we can stop plastic pollution before it reaches our ocean, we’ll be able to drastically reduce this problem before it becomes uncontrollable.”

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