​​2022: A year of impact, growth, and cleaner rivers

How winning The Iris Prize has helped Sam grow and scale Sungai Watch

2022 was a busy year at Sungai Watch. We collected over 500,000 kg of plastics in Indonesia and we installed 80 new barriers (making our total installed barrier count at 180). We expanded our operation outside of Bali into Java (the world’s most populated city and home to 83 of the world’s 1,000 most polluted rivers) and we grew our team of river warriors to over 100 full-time staff! Most importantly, we learned a lot and developed the building blocks for scaling our work beyond Bali and East Java.

We started Sungai Watch two years ago as three siblings wanting to create as much impact to stop the endless flow of plastic from entering our oceans, after being involved in this fight against plastic for 12 years. When we installed our first barrier, our mission was pure and we had an ambitious goal of cleaning up Bali’s most polluted rivers. However, little did we know how much time, energy, and resources this would require.

Since then, we have been testing, designing and deploying more than 180 barriers using Indonesia as our test lab, where no two rivers are the same. We have tested different types of technologies from booms, nets, cages, to blocks and we are now working with our most efficient and scalable barrier: Floaters and Mini-Floaters:

With 80% of plastic pollution in the ocean coming from rivers and Indonesia being the world’s second biggest polluter to the oceans, with 550,000 tons of plastic going into the ocean annually. At the rate that plastic is polluting our planet, it’s easy to feel like this is a never-ending battle. There is a lot of work ahead of us, but with scalable solutions that are implemented quickly, I believe we stand a chance at beating plastic pollution.

This is where our new “Village Model” comes in, which we introduced earlier this year as we applied for the Iris Prize. With the clear lack of waste management infrastructure in Indonesia, we have identified that localizing our operation by village is the most effective way to scale and stop plastic from entering our oceans. Our “Village Model,” is a sponsorship model that we began implementing, where each village is home to one facility, has a network of 15 to 30 barriers, and a full-time team of 12 to 15 people running it. The team is responsible for cleaning every barrier daily, sorting all of the collected trash and offsetting the sorted and processed waste to local recycling partners. In one calendar year, the smallest village will remove 100,000 kilograms of plastic from its waterways. We currently operate 5 Village Models throughout Bali and East Java and we are very excited to continue implementing more villages throughout Indonesia’s most polluted regions.

Ultimately, our goal at Sungai Watch is to not exist. We believe that providing the technology to stop plastic flowing from rivers to oceans is only the first step. The real solution lies upstream, where we can stop the disposal of waste in our rivers in the first place. Each Village Model is also an opportunity of working closely with communities on education programs and awareness campaigns locally to incentivize more sustainable practices and better waste management at the household level. Serving as the local go-to sustainability centre, we hope that our Village Model facilities will help nurture the environment needed to empower local environmental heroes that will continue to monitor that village’s plastic problem in the years to come.

Through data, we are also pushing to better understand our waste and find solutions to manage it and reduce pollution. Once the trash is brought to our Village Model facilities, we sort it and identify the companies most responsible for plastic pollution by doing a brand audit. This helps fuel constructive conversations that advances product packaging, the implementation of waste collection points and waste deposit systems and further extends producer responsibility.

This year has been a huge learning lesson as we launched our first Village Model in March, and later our fifth Village in October. I am very grateful to have won the Iris Prize this year and to have used the funding to employ and empower 5 women to join our sorting team in one of these villages. Wayan, Maria, Kadek, Made, and Eka joined us in September, at a time when we were overwhelmed with trash after a few emergency clean-ups of illegal landfills located on riverbanks and clean-ups at some heavily polluted mangroves.

Thank you to the Iris Prize and everyone else that has helped us get to where we are today. 850,000 kilograms of plastic later, we are closing our second year at Sungai Watch. Now, we are ready to scale our work massively and take on the impossible.

See you soon on a river near you,

Sam Bencheghib.