​​2023: One Year Since Winning the Iris Prize

Sam shares his learnings, reflections and progress, looking back over the year since he won the Iris Prize 2022.

Last year, we were awarded the Iris Prize at a time when we had just identified what we thought was the perfect, scalable solution for stopping plastic from going into the ocean. We started Sungai Watch three years ago to stop as much plastic from going into the ocean by restoring our rivers and doing this through the power of community and technology. We identified a simple solution: the trash barrier and created a streamlined operation after installing these barriers in rivers to clean the barrier daily, sort the trash collected, and recycle it. A full closed-loop method of addressing the issue. We had ambitious plans, and we were starting to see exciting growth results. From the plastic collection amount growing to 3,000 kilograms of plastic daily, to fish populations coming back in rivers that we were cleaning, to an exciting list of brands, companies, and supporters that wanted to help us achieve our mission. This was tremendously motivating and inspired us to keep working hard and continue to set more ambitious impact goals. However, what this growth meant was that we needed more structure and a better core management team to accomplish these goals successfully. This is what 2023 has all been about.

Since winning the Iris Prize last year, we have been building and training the best core team possible and creating a bulletproof scale-up model to bring our solution to Indonesia’s most polluted regions and expand our work internationally. We believe that we are now only a few months away from achieving this result, and we are incredibly excited to start this scale-up.

Winning the Iris Prize was a significant step in getting us closer to this goal. With the Iris Prize Grant money, we were able to grow our sorting team to improve the efficiency of our sorting and be able to streamline our operation. To give some context, every single day, our teams go out and clean each of our barriers; they weigh the trash caught by the barrier onsite and upload a photo of the collection into our database so that our partners can track the performance of their barriers almost in real-time. The trash is then brought back to the region’s sorting centre, where we have a team that sorts through 30 different material categories to be able to recycle the trash that was collected. Cleaning rivers and collecting trash is, therefore only half the battle. Sorting the collected trash is just as important.

Winning the Iris Prize enabled us to use the grant money to grow our sorting team by hiring 5 full-time sorters for 12 months. Wayan, Maria, Kadek, Made, and Eka joined us in September when we were overwhelmed with trash, and we have since significantly improved our sorting processes. We are very happy to have kept these five incredible sorters onboard our team since then and to now be growing our team even more. We now have 120 river warriors working at Sungai Watch full-time, and we look forward to continuing to create more impact and clean rivers over the future thanks to this incredible team.

With the help of the Iris Prize repeated funding this year, we will be growing our team even further, specifically our engineering department, by working alongside an engineering consulting group to work on improving our barrier technology and its efficiency. Our goal is to stop plastic from going into the ocean, and we have been working diligently on growing our team, continuously improving our processes from collection to sorting, to washing, and now we look back at the technology that got us started – our trash barrier. We look forward to working with this engineering team to find better ways to catch plastic. By the time this new barrier technology comes around, we hope to finally begin our expansion throughout Indonesia’s most polluted regions and expand internationally to have more impact on our rivers, oceans, and local communities. 

By Sam Benchghib

Iris Prize 2024

Applications are now open.