Bringing You the Daily Dispatch

The team is facing the unpleasant task of sorting through dirty diapers to clean up the waterways in Bali, causing discomfort in their stomach.
Environment World News

The team is facing the unpleasant task of sorting through dirty diapers to clean up the waterways in Bali, causing discomfort in their stomach.

It requires a brief period of adjustment each time. The debris that accumulates against the plastic barriers in the waterways is not limited to just clean plastic bottles. Among the murky mixture, there is a variety of discarded items such as diapers, face masks, and even electronic devices.

“You have spoiled food, specifically chicken intestines. Unfortunately, we also come across numerous deceased animals and used diapers. It is a truly unpleasant task that can make your stomach turn while cleaning up.” However, Kelly Bencheghib remains undeterred and continues to do it.

Each week, employees of Sungai Watch wear protective gear and enter the waterways surrounding Bali, Indonesia. They set up large plastic barriers and, with the help of volunteers, remove the accumulated waste, filling garbage bags and steadily clearing the pollution. Despite the difficult and tiring nature of the work, there is a sense of fulfillment in seeing the rivers become cleaner once again. “You do become accustomed to it, surprisingly. But it always takes a few minutes to adjust when entering a river.”

When you think of Bali, you probably imagine a beautiful tropical paradise. However, just like many other places in the world, the island is facing a plastic pollution issue. Every year, it produces 1.6 million tonnes of waste, with 303,000 tonnes being made up of plastic. Unfortunately, more than half of this waste is not properly collected, including 33,000 tonnes that ends up in Bali’s waterways. During the monsoon season, the coastlines are often covered in piles of waste from the neighboring island of Java. While the exact numbers vary, one estimate suggests that 1.3 million tonnes of plastic from Indonesia is polluting the ocean annually. And this is just a small portion of the millions of tonnes that come from other places.

Piles of plastic on beach and people with green bin bags

How can we tackle the issue of waste? In an ideal scenario, it would be addressed at the source through circular waste management and sustainable packaging. However, currently it appears that the only solution is for individuals to take action and clean up the mess themselves. Around the globe, people, organizations, and governments are taking action against the abundance of trash polluting our lands and oceans. These efforts range from community beach cleanups to creative solutions like the “bubble barrier” being tested in the Netherlands, to larger-scale initiatives like the Ocean Cleanup.

In Bali, there is a team called Sungai Watch that is working hard to combat plastic pollution. The team was founded by Bencheghib and her siblings Gary and Sam, who were born in France but raised on the beaches of Bali. They became aware of the plastic problem at a young age and as teenagers, they began organizing weekly cleanups with their classmates and local businesses. At first, people thought they were strange and questioned why they were putting in so much effort. They believed the plastic would just wash away with the waves. However, Kelly, one of the siblings, explains that their efforts are important and necessary.

A Sungai Watch worker wades waist deep in river water to collect rubbish trapped by a barrier

Since the beginning, the three individuals recognized the potential of social media as a valuable tool. In 2009, they started sharing photos and micro-documentaries, as well as highlighting local heroes, in order to bring attention to the growing issue of waste. In 2017, Gary and Sam Bencheghib embarked on an expedition down Indonesia’s Citarum River, known as one of the most polluted rivers in the world. They used kayaks made from plastic bottles and documented their two-week journey through video, showcasing the immense difficulty of paddling through the masses of plastic. The river is home to approximately 15 million people who rely on it for water.

The footage led to an urgent response from the Indonesian government’s environmental agency, and several months afterwards, President Joko Widodo revealed a seven-year strategy to restore the Citarum River. This revelation made the siblings recognize the importance of addressing waterways. In 2020, they established Sungai Watch – “sungai” meaning river in Indonesian – with the aim of placing floating nets in rivers across the nation to prevent plastic waste from entering the ocean.

After three years, the organization has placed 268 barriers to collect trash, mostly in Bali and a few in East Java. These barriers are supported by donations from communities and businesses, who can have their names displayed on them. The organization does not accept funding from plastic manufacturers. It frequently shares videos on Instagram, where it has a following of 400,000 people.

The team has gone into the rivers to remove the debris trapped by the barriers, and then separates the waste in their seven processing facilities. Sungai Watch, with the assistance of volunteers, has organized over 1,000 cleanups per week and has gathered a grand total of over 1.7 million kilograms of waste.

Staff and volunteers up to waists in water at barrier with trapped plastic waste

In a 2019 study conducted by marine pollution researcher Muhammad Reza Cordova at Indonesia’s research agency BRIN, it was found that barriers were an effective means of reducing debris. Over a period of 13 months, it was observed that rivers with floating net booms had significantly less debris compared to those without.

Reza and his colleagues advised the government to implement nets in the top 10 rivers of Java, the most heavily populated island in Indonesia. However, progress has been sluggish despite the government’s goal to decrease marine plastic pollution by 70% by 2025. According to Reza, this has resulted in individuals outside of the government taking matters into their own hands, as visible in numerous cases, due to their inability to tolerate the situation any longer.

The Sungai Watch team is sifting through their bags of trash, and a significant amount of it consists of plastic bags, diapers, feminine hygiene products, and cables. Unfortunately, all of these items currently have to be disposed of in landfills.

People with masks sorting through plastic waste

Machines are used to wash and press the remaining waste. A portion of the plastic will be transformed into furniture through Sungai Design, the group’s social enterprise division, which is set to launch in February.

“At the moment, we’re processing around maybe 20% of what we collect. So we have a giant garden of plastics that we’re still not yet able to cater to,” Gary Bencheghib said. “That’s really what we’ve been working to really give it, like, a second life.”

However, they understand that this is simply the beginning. The teams have encountered various challenges, including encountering snakes and enduring intense heat that makes wearing protective gear uncomfortable. Despite their efforts to clean up, they often return to the same rivers to find trash once again floating on the surface. “We are only tackling a small part of the plastic issue in Bali. Our contributions are like a small drop in the vast ocean. Our ultimate goal is for Sungai Watch to become obsolete,” they stated.

Source: theguardian.com