After finishing college, recent graduates often move to new cities, explore different career paths, start their own projects, or travel the world. But Sam Bencheghib has different plans: running.
The 22-year-old — who graduated from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, this spring — is embarking on a six-month journey that spans 3,100 miles in an effort to raise awareness about plastic pollution. Bencheghib plans to run from New York City’s Battery Park area to Santa Monica, California, stopping at city halls along the way where he will ask mayors to sign a no-plastic pledge.
Bencheghib first noticed the world’s growing plastic problem when he moved from Paris to Bali, Indonesia, 10 years ago.
"I grew up with my brother, Gary, and sister, Kelly, on the island of Bali, and just witnessing the pristine environment and beautiful beaches get trashed by plastic pollution — it was definitely a wake up call for us," Bencheghib told Global Citizen. Benchegib recalled that when he was 12 and his brother 14, the trash problem had become noticeable.
"We just saw so much trash and it was so devastating to swim in the water, walk on the beaches, and see it everywhere around you," he said. "At the time we thought the only thing we could do was pick it up and send it to recycling facilities but we quickly realized that the trash would return the very next day."
The Bencheghib brothers have since moved on from cleaning beaches on their own to talking to people in their community about plastic alternatives. The two also started sharing videos of their cleanup expeditions on social media, and founded Make a Change World, a media organization that promotes news centered on sustainability.
Indonesia’s plastic waste problem has been on the rise in recent years. A growing population has resulted in the use of more single-use plastics, and without proper waste management systems, the country’s plastic pollution has grown worse. Each of Indonesia’s 350 million residents is now responsible for more than two pounds of plastic waste per year, according to the Guardian.
Last year, waterways and canals in Bandung —Indonesia’s third largest city — were blocked by enormous amounts of plastic trash that had accumultaed and disrupted the flow of water. The situation was so dire that the military was called to step in and soldiers were deployed to help clear the trash. Despite government initiatives in recent years, stronger waste management policies have yet to yield significant results.
While Indonesia’s plastic waste problem has been ongoing for at least a decade, so has Sam’s activism.
His most memorable cleanup effort took place in August 2017, when he and Gary sailed across the Citraum River in Indonesia — considered one of the world’s most polluted river — on boats they made out of plastic bottles.
The brothers posted a video of their stunt on Facebook, which quickly went viral and even garnered the attention of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who who publicly promised to rid the river of all trash within seven years as a result.
“We really wanted to create a shocking visual of all this trash that's coming in from our rivers into the ocean,” Gary said in the video. "We have to start from our rivers, because that is where we can still capture the waste before it gets out in the open sea."
For his next awareness-raising endeavor, Sam plans to run 20 miles a day, six days a week, for six months. He also plans to conduct educational workshops at schools and college campuses during his stop-overs on rest days. He is crowd-funding the effort through GoFundMe, and has already raised $9,000 of his $30,000 goal.
According to a new report, the average American produces 1,704 pounds of garbage per year, roughly three times the global average. Most of that unmanaged trash ends up in the oceans — becoming a menace to marine animals and polluting the Earth’s waterways.
When Sam moved to the US to attend college in 2015, he knew he was coming to a country that had a huge consumer market that generates a large amount of trash, he said. But because trash gets picked up regularly in many parts of the US, Sam believes it's more difficult for some Americans to visualize the problem. The trash gets collected from people's homes and taken away to landfills so consumers don't see where it ultimately ends up — in oceans and waterways.
During his expeditions along the polluted waters of the Mississippi River, the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, and on the Newton Creek that feeds into the East River, he witnessed the same trash problem as he did in Bali — plastic bags, used condoms, tossed clothing, and industrial waste accumulated along the waterfront.
Sam said he hopes his quest will help highlight just how devastating the effects of plastic are and inspire people across the United States to change their habits.
"We can't wait any longer to fix this problem. It's really up to us young people to save our planet from this catastrophe. We are going to be the ones facing the environmental problems, we are going to be the ones that see the sea levels rise and beaches that are no longer pristine but covered in toxic waste," he said.
Sam urged people to take even the smallest actions to help reduce their plastic usage.
"Start small: don't use plastic, don't use single-use plastics, get your friends excited, get your families excited. That's the first step — and be aware and make a difference yourself in your community."