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Sungai Watch Is Cleaning Tons of Trash From Indonesian Rivers and Turning It Into Furniture

Turning trash into treasure. Sungai Watch is up-cycling with Sungai Designs.

The Inertia

Trash mountains, flaming horizons and vacated homes. Since viral footage of Bali’s landfill fires, the only viable option is long-overdue action. Sungai Watch is leading the charge.

I was surfing Canggu in 2019, paddling through Maggi wrappers, bandaids and weathered plastic, stuffing as much as I could in my bikini. It felt endless, and the rainy season brought a new beast altogether. King tides and monsoons buried the beach in a kaleidoscope of microplastic confetti. The island’s pollution problem isn’t a secret and obvious upon arrival in whatever beach town you’ve chosen. You’ve likely heard how Bali isn’t what it was five, 10, or 20 years ago. But we’re 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 major landfills caught fire and trash-clogged rivers flooded homes throughout the archipelago. Bali’s water runs through 400 rivers flowing towards the ocean, transporting millions of kilograms of waste with it, due to lack of proper disposal. Filmmaker Gary Bencheghib shared footage of the fires on Instagram and gained momentum when he followed trucks to the new “open dump” sites. Previously, pristine rice fields. 

Sungai Watch is an environmental initiative to protect Indonesia’s waterways, clearing trash and installing barriers to stop plastics from entering the ocean. Founded in 2020 by French-born and Bali-raised siblings Kelly, Gary and Sam Bencheghib, the nonprofit has gained mainstream awareness for wading into rivers, cleaning and sorting waste by hand. The crew of 120 has cleaned 380 rivers and hundreds of kilometers of coastline and has installed 268 barriers, collecting, sorting, and recycling up to three tons of river plastic daily. The first quarter of 2024 has been the biggest yet with the team collecting 267,817 kilograms of plastic. 

“Plastic poses  growing threats (that are terrifying) to our environment and our health,” the team at Sungai writes.

Cleaning is half the battle as Sungai Watch devotes efforts to data sampling, fueling conversation with community and governments and lobbying for better packaging and accountability from manufacturers. They have seven facilities in Bali and East Java systematically sorting waste into 30 material categories to identify consumption patterns, improve education, encourage government action (like single-use plastic bans) and identifying the most significant contributors. 

The grueling work is incredibly gratifying and the impact is truly remarkable. And it’s just the start. The Instagram videos alone are an emotional experience. In 30-ish seconds you see a river drowning in layers of rubbish cleared by the Sungai legends to reveal a thriving waterbody.

It gets better. After analyzing and recording data, they wash, shred and prepare the trash for re- or up-cycling. This year, Sungai Watch launched Sungai Design – turning river rubbish into functional products and radically changing our relationship with waste. They crafted the first furniture piece, the Ombak chair, from 2,000 retrieved plastic bags. 

Beyond barriers, Sungai Watch emphasizes community participation in weekly cleanups of illegal landfills and riverbanks to educate and reduce littering from the onset. 

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

The 2023 impact report shows massive improvements. In Tabanan, 1,000-plus community members, local schools and businesses have participated in 107 cleanups, including converting an illegal riverbank landfill into a sunflower garden. The mayor also agreed to cease all illegal landfills and monitor littering with video surveillance. They strengthened local governments and business partnerships in Gianya to reduce illegal dumping and in Banyuwangi, East Java removed 36 tons of plastics 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 on social media and within 24 hours, collected 15 tons of plastic after receiving help from the mayor.”

Sungai Watch continuously innovates its environmental approach to improve Indonesia’s waste management and sets 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 keeping 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 – Indonesia’s most polluted region. We hope to install 100 (river) barriers, operate three sort and recycle facilities and remove 3,000,000 kg of non-organic trash from this region over three years. We will soon launch our fundraiser for $3,000,000 USD to support the initiative and aim to start work this summer.”

Learn more and volunteer here.


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