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Sungai Watch cleans up waste from Indonesian rivers and processes it into furniture



Garbage piles, flaming horizons and abandoned houses. Since viral images of The dump fires in Balithe only viable option is action that should have taken place much earlier. Sungai Watch leads the charge.

I was surfing Canggu in 2019, paddling through Maggi wrappers, band-aids and weathered plastic, packing as much as I could into my bikini. It felt endless, and the rainy season brought a whole new beast. King tides and monsoons buried the beach in a kaleidoscope of microplastic confetti. The island’s pollution problem is no secret and obvious upon arrival in whichever beach town you’ve chosen. You’ve probably heard that Bali isn’t what it was five, ten or twenty years ago. But we are the problem. We book flights, surf consistent waves, complain about crowds and development and go home to drink clean water from the tap.

In 2023, more than 30 of Indonesia’s largest landfills caught fire and waste-clogged rivers flooded homes across the archipelago. Bali’s water flows through 400 rivers that flow to the ocean, carrying millions of pounds of waste due to a lack of proper drainage. Filmmaker Gary Bencheghib shared images of the fires Instagram and gained momentum as he followed trucks to the new “open dumps.” Formerly pristine rice fields.

Sungai watch is an environmental initiative to protect Indonesia’s waterways, clean up waste and install barriers to prevent plastic from entering the ocean. Founded in 2020 by French-born and Bali-raised siblings Kelly, Gary And Sam Bencheghibthe non-profit organization has gained mainstream fame for wading in rivers, cleaning by hand and sorting waste. The 120 crew have cleaned 380 rivers and hundreds of kilometers of coastline and installed 268 barriers, collecting, sorting and recycling up to three tonnes of river plastic every day. The first quarter of 2024 was the largest yet: the team collected 267,817 kilos of plastic.

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“Plastics pose an increasing threat (which is terrifying) to our environment and our health,” the Sungai team wrote.

Cleaning up is half the battle, as Sungai Watch is committed to collecting data, sparking community and government conversations, and lobbying for better packaging and manufacturer liability. They have seven facilities in Bali and East Java that systematically sort waste into thirty material categories to identify consumption patterns, improve education, encourage government action (such as a ban on single-use plastics) and identify key contributors.

The backbreaking work is incredible gratifying and the impact is truly remarkable. And it’s just the beginning. The Instagram only videos are an emotional experience. In thirty seconds you see a river drowning in layers of waste cleared away by the Sungai legends to reveal a thriving body of water.

It will be better. After analyzing and recording the data, they wash, shred and prepare the waste for reuse or upcycling. This year, Sungai Watch was launched Sungai design – transform river waste into functional products and radically change our relationship with waste. They made the first piece of furniture, the Ombak chair, from 2,000 plastic bags collected.

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In addition to barriers, Sungai Watch emphasizes community participation in weekly cleanups of illegal dumps and riverbanks to educate and reduce litter from the start.

“As we continue to grow our impact, we place equal importance on our network of waste barriers and upstream solutions to solve the lack of waste management infrastructure in each region,” the organization’s PR team told me.

The Impact report 2023 shows enormous improvements. In Tabanan, more than a thousand community members, local schools and businesses participated in 107 cleanups, including converting an illegal riverbank dump into a sunflower garden. The mayor also agreed to end all illegal dumps and monitor litter with video surveillance. They strengthened local governments and business partnerships in Gianya to reduce illegal dumping, and in Banyuwangi, East Java, 36 tons of plastic were removed from one of Indonesia’s most polluted beaches.

“One of our most successful projects was the Tukad Teba cleanup in Denpasar,” Sungai Watch told me. “We posted a video of the trash-covered river social media and collected 15 tons of plastic within 24 hours, after help from the mayor.”

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Sungai Watch is continuously innovating its environmental approach to improve Indonesian waste management and is putting in place impressive plans as the initiative gains momentum.

What’s next?

Sungai Watch says: “The Indonesian national government has set ambitious targets for 2024, and we look forward to holding them accountable through our work on the ground.”

“We are ready to roll up our sleeves and show the world that clean rivers and oceans are possible. We are currently fundraising for an expansion to Bekasi, Java – the most polluted region in Indonesia. We hope to install 100 (river) barriers, operate three sorting and recycling facilities and remove 3,000,000 kg of non-organic waste from this region in three years. We will soon launch our fundraising campaign for $3,000,000 USD to support the initiative and aim to begin work this summer.”

Learn more and volunteer here.

The post Sungai Watch cleans up waste from Indonesian rivers and turns it into furniture first appeared on The Inertia.

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