The United Nations has called marine plastic pollution “a slow-moving catastrophe” that threatens the economy, health, and well-being of nations. It is truly a global, transborder problem that should challenge all since plastic dumped in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, carried by ocean currents, can appear on the shores of Kenya or Tanzania in Africa.
In Indonesia, a young Frenchman, GARY BENCHEGHIB, is a remarkable and surprising warrior in the fight against marine plastic pollution. When he was nine years old, his parents chose to live in Bali and this has been his home ever since. Moved by a love for nature and adventure, he discovered early on that Bali was not entirely tourism’s picture-perfect paradise; over 30,000 tons of plastic refuse travel down Bali’s waterways annually. Indonesia is the largest contributor of marine plastic pollution in the world after China, accounting for more than 600,000 tons of plastic dumped into the world’s oceans every year. GARY was only fourteen-years-old when he and his sister Kelly, age sixteen, and brother Sam, twelve, started a weekly beach clean-up with friends. This effort turned into an organization called “Make a Change World,” that would produce inspiring, educational multi-media content on plastic pollution and environmental protection.
In Indonesia and the United States (where GARY took up filmmaking at the New York Film Academy), GARY and his team pursued what he calls "crazy ideas," exploring the polluted waterways of New York City, circumnavigating the island of Bali in a repurposed traditional fishing boat, and documenting brother Sam in his run across the American continent with recycled plastic shoes. Raising public awareness of the environment, and realizing the important role of documentary filmmaking, particularly among the young, would lead him to produce more than a hundred videos on plastic pollution and environmental protection, posted on YouTube, Facebook, and other platforms, from short-form videos 00:01:30-00:02:09 in length to feature films that have been seen by millions.
In 2017, GARY and his team kayaked and filmed an expedition on the Citarum River in West Java, dramatizing the state of what was called “the world’s most polluted river.” The documentary, a dramatic series of nine videos, generated wide public interest and triggered a response from President Joko Widodo himself as the Indonesian government embarked on a seven-year Citarum River rehabilitation program.
This would inspire GARY as well to move from publicity to field implementation when he and his siblings established Sungai Watch in 2020. In the project, multiple types of locally fabricated, moveable trash barriers are chosen and deployed according to the river’s characteristics and location; the trash is collected daily and sorted by staff and local volunteers; and “audited” in a process in which each piece of plastic is identified according to type, brand, and producer (using methods like scanning barcodes). It is an all-around, data-driven effort that involves community-level education and participation, partnerships with other environmental organizations, and community and corporate sponsorships of individual trash barriers and other activities. Sungai Watch likewise runs Indonesia’s first trash hotline for citizens to report trash locations on a dedicated WhatsApp line. To date, Sungai Watch has set up 150 trash barriers in Bali and twenty trash barriers in Java and have collected over a million kilograms of organic and non-organic waste. The organization’s next goal is to install a thousand trash barriers across Indonesia’s most polluted rivers. Of his “crazy ideas,” GARY says: “The problem of plastic pollution is a huge one but if we have that dream, that conviction, and that passion, then things can happen.”
In electing GARY BENCHEGHIB to receive the 2022 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes his inspiring fight against marine plastic pollution, an issue at once intensely local as well as global; his youthful energies in combining nature, adventure, video, and technology as weapons for social advocacy; and his creative, risk-taking passion that is truly a shining example for the youth and the world.