‘It gets your stomach churning’: the team wading through nappies to clean up Bali’s waterways | Pollution

It takes a few minutes to adapt every time. The rubbish that piles up against the plastic barriers across the waterways is not only nice, clean plastic bottles. Mixed into the murky mass is all sorts of waste: nappies, face masks, even electrical goods.

“You have perished food, the rest of chicken intestines. Unfortunately, we find a lot of dead animals as well, a lot of diapers. So it’s truly horrible, it really gets your stomach churning as you clean up.” But Kelly Bencheghib does not seem to be seriously put off, because she keeps on doing it.

Every week, the Sungai Watch staff don waders and gloves and plunge into the waterways around the Indonesian island of Bali, where they have strung up their big plastic barriers. Along with volunteers, they work their way through the heaps of waste that has built up against the barriers, stuffing it into rubbish bags and slowly, steadily, clearing the filth. The work is gruelling, and yet there is deep satisfaction, even if just temporarily, in watching the rivers open up again. “You do get used to it, strangely enough. But you always need at least a few minutes to adapt as you go into a river.”

The typical mental image of Bali is of a glorious tropical paradise. In reality, like everywhere in the world, the island has a plastic problem: it produces 1.6m tonnes of waste a year, 303,000 tonnes of it plastic. More than half of this goes uncollected, including 33,000 tonnes that gets into Bali’s waterways. During monsoon season, piles of waste from the neighbouring island of Java bury its coastlines. While data varies, one estimate says 1.3m tonnes of Indonesia’s unmanaged plastic may be polluting the ocean every year. And that is just a small part of the millions of tonnes floating in from elsewhere.

Sungai Watch workers tackle a mountain of plastic on a Bali beach. Photograph: Courtesy of Sungai Watch

Where to even begin in cleaning up that kind of waste? In an ideal world it would be dealt with upstream, with circular waste systems and minimal or reusable packaging. But for now it seems as if the only answer is for people to wade in and pick it up themselves. All over the world, individuals, groups and governments are picking up the baton and launching initiatives against the rubbish filling the land and oceans. Their efforts range from local beach cleanups, to innovative strategies such as the “bubble barrier” that is being trialled in the Netherlands, to international efforts such as the Ocean Cleanup.

Sungai Watch in Bali is one of these many valiant teams. It was set up by Bencheghib and her siblings Gary and Sam, who are French-born but grew up on the beaches of Bali and became aware of the growing plastic problem from a very young age. As teenagers, they started a weekly cleanup, roping in schoolmates and local businesses. “Back then, everyone looked at us in a bit of a weird mood. They were really asking the questions: why do you even bother? It’s just going to disappear with the waves,” Kelly says.

A Sungai Watch worker wades waist deep in river water to collect rubbish trapped by a barrier
A Sungai Watch worker wades waist deep in river water to collect rubbish trapped by a barrier. Photograph: undefined/Courtesy of Sungai Watch

From early on, the three realised that social media could be a huge help, and from 2009 they began sharing photos and micro-documentaries as well as highlighting local heroes to attract attention to the mounting problem of rubbish. In 2017, Gary and Sam Bencheghib ran an expedition down the Citarum River, one of the world’s most polluted, in Indonesia, using kayaks constructed from plastic bottles, documenting their two-week journey on video to show how hard it was even to paddle through the masses of plastics. About 15 million people lived along the river and many rely on it as a water source.

The videos prompted an emergency cleanup by the Indonesian environment ministry, and months later the president, Joko Widodo, announced a seven-year rehabilitation plan of the Citarum River. It made the siblings realise it was the waterways they needed to focus on. In 2020, they founded Sungai Watch – sungai is the Indonesian word for river – with the goal of installing floating net barriers in rivers around the country to stop plastics flowing into the ocean.

Three years on, the organisation has installed 268 rubbish barriers, mainly in Bali with a few others in East Java. They are funded by donations from communities and businesses, which can then put their names on the barriers. The organisation does not take money from plastic producers, however. It posts regular videos on Instagram, where it has 400,000 followers.

After the team has waded into the rivers to clean up the rubbish caught by these barriers it sorts the waste in its seven processing facilities. Sungai Watch has now initiated more than 1,000 weekly cleanups with the help of volunteers and collected a total of more than 1.7m kg of waste.

Staff and volunteers up to waists in water at barrier with trapped plastic waste
Staff and volunteers pick through plastic at one of the river barriers. Photograph: Courtesy of Sungai Watch

The barriers are an effective mechanism, according to a 2019 study by the marine pollution researcher Muhammad Reza Cordova at Indonesia’s research agency BRIN. He found, over 13 months, that rivers with floating net booms had between seven and 10 times less debris than those without.

Reza and his team recommended that the government install nets at least in the 10 main rivers of Java, Indonesia’s most populous island, but take-up has been slow, despite the government’s target to reduce marine plastic pollution by 70% by 2025. “So instead, we see non-government people taking actions, as we can see in many instances, because people just can’t stand it any more,” he said.

The Sungai Watch team sorts through its rubbish sacks: a huge proportion of the waste is plastic bags, nappies, sanitary waste, or cables, all of which, for now, has to go into landfill.

People with masks sorting through plastic waste
Sungai Watch workers sort plastic which, where possible, is recycled. Photograph: Courtesy of Sungai Watch

The remaining waste is washed and pressed by machines. Some of the plastics will be turned into furniture under the group’s social enterprise arm, Sungai Design, to be launched in February.

“At the moment, we’re processing around maybe 20% of what we collect. So we have a giant garden of plastics that we’re still not yet able to cater to,” Gary Bencheghib said. “That’s really what we’ve been working to really give it, like, a second life.”

But they are all aware that this is just a starting point. The teams have faced everything from snakes to the sort of heat that makes wearing protective equipment unbearable. And even after a cleanup, they can go back to the same rivers only to find rubbish floating on the surface again. “We’re really just solving a fraction of the plastic problem here in Bali. Our efforts are like a tiny drop in the ocean. Our perfect scenario is for Sungai Watch to no longer be needed,” they said.