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.
Maligayan pagbati sa Pilipinas na… walang plastik!
Now imagine if that was a saying. “Welcome to a Plastic Free Philippines!”
My short life’s journey has pretty much only revolved around plastics.
In fact so much so that when I was a young boy, I will always remember walking to school one day, when my mother told me, “If you don’t do your homework you’ll end up being a garbage man.”
Today I am deeply honored to be receiving the Ramon Magsaysay award for my work as a garbage man.
Sometimes, I wake up and it feels like a never-ending battle. We will be knee-deep in a river cleaning it up and feeling victorious, but the very next day with big rains, the river is filled with more trash than the previous day.
A new study reveals that there is no surface on earth without signs of plastic pollution. This means that every island in the Philippines, in Indonesia, under some shell, under some rock has plastic pollution.
Every single minute, a garbage truck full of plastic pollution enters our ocean from rivers globally.
In the next decade, we are set to triple global plastic production. Is this really the legacy that we want to leave behind?
It calls for collective action, we need a radical shift in how we think and how we use plastics. And it starts directly in our rivers, where we can still stop this disaster from destroying our planet and our health.
We need to focus on scalable solutions and implement them quickly. In 2 short years of running Sungai Watch, we have seen the potential for change by harnessing the power of community. In 2 short years of running Sungai Watch, we have already had to move some of our barriers because no more plastics are polluting those rivers due to growing public awareness about plastic pollution. It feels as if those rivers have officially “graduated” from our programs.
But we are destructing our planet, quicker than we can fix it. And now, we need to let our planet rest.
We have cleaned up some of the worst disaster relief areas. And when we fully restore these areas and let nature do its work. We have seen mangroves regrow. We have seen fish come back.
But cleaning up plastics is only half of the battle. Processing the trash and turning it into valuable products is a whole other game. So that is what we are doing. We are collecting, sorting, processing, treating, and recycling the trash that we collect.
What if we could sweep all the plastic out there and use it for good? Turn garbage into an economical incentive to fund back our cleanup programs.
Our next goal is to install 1,000 barriers throughout the world’s most polluted rivers but we can’t do this alone. There is a lot of work ahead of us and this is just the beginning, but I hope that everyone here today will join me in some small way on this lifelong journey against plastic pollution.
The little boy inside of me would have never dreamed once to become a garbage man doing everything in my power to make sure that we can win this plastic war. What a celebration it is to be here in the Philippines tonight!