Davos Agenda

The story of two brothers who travelled through a river of trash and inspired a nation

Tourists and local residents disembark a boat coming from nearby Nusa Penida island as plastic trash pollutes the beach in Sanur, Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Johannes P. Christo     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC1DEFD78A90

Beaches on the beautiful island of Bali are littered with plastic trash Image: REUTERS/Johannes P. Christo TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC1DEFD78A90

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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Bali has introduced a plastic bag ban after Melati Wijsen's campaign.
  • Indonesia's President has now promised to clean up the country's rivers.
  • The young generation is finding solutions to the world's problems.

“Since I started this talk, more than 200,000 metric tons of plastic will have entered the ocean.”

That distressing fact was shared by Gary Bencheghib, young environmental activist and co-founder of Make a Change World, who had been speaking at Davos for around 20 minutes.

“There are 500 times more pieces of plastic in our ocean than there are stars in our galaxy, he said. “The truth is that there has never been a more important time to act than now.”

Bencheghib grew up on the Indonesian island of Bali where he continually encountered plastic pollution in beaches, rivers, and in the ocean.

“During big rains, our beaches are literally covered in this material. It’s completely unbearable to witness and experience.”

The river was totally blocked with trash at times Image: Make a Change World

Time for action

Bencheghib decided to expose the plastic pollution to the world.

He and his brother Sam rowed down Indonesia’s most polluted river, the 300km Citarum, on kayaks made from plastic bottles. There was so much plastic clogging the river that they could barely navigate it.

How plastics enter the ocean Image: Our World in Data

“What we witnessed on the river was completely horrendous,” he said, describing the smell as like dead animal flesh.

Bencheghib’s voyage, which he called “a recycled exposé”, attracted the attention of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who promised him that the Citarum would be cleaned up.

‘Mass revolution’

Single-use plastics have been banned in Bali, thanks in large part to Bencheghib’s fellow activist Melati Wijsen, who at the age of 12, co-founded the NGO Bye Bye Plastic Bags with her younger sister.

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Together they have campaigned to ban plastic bags, sharing their message around the world. Both Wijsen and Bencheghib have been invited to Davos as teenage change-makers, in order to give more prominence to the younger generation.

Melati Wijsen, Founder, Bye Bye Plastic Bags, Indonesia speaking in the UpLink: Linking Up the Next Generation of Change-Makers session at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2020 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, 21 January. Congress Centre - Situation Room. Copyright by World Economic Forum / Valeriano Di Domenico\r\r

“I’m part of a generation that is leading with solutions,” said Wijsen, “whether that is kayaking down the world’s most polluted river, banning the tampon tax or banning plastic bags. You may have heard of some of us, like Greta, like Malala, like Boyan Slat. There are so many more of us. We needed a mass revolution.”

At Davos, Wijsen announced a new venture, Youthtopia, a peer-to-peer platform for change-makers.

The work is really only just beginning, she said, urging everyone to take urgent action on climate change. “All hands on deck finally made sense to me - I knew we had to have the private, the public, companies, scientists, young people. This was a movement that needed everyone.”

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What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

“We need to get out of our comfort zone, we have to act according to the Paris Agreement, without any loopholes for government. And for the private sector, dig deep into your pockets, into your budgets, so that you can wake up knowing that you did more than the standard operational procedures.”

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Related topics:
Davos AgendaCircular EconomyOcean
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