The Ocean Fund Solutions

Sungai Watch

Stopping ocean-bound plastic in rivers

🛡 HighTrust Rating

🧐 LowRisk Rating

Flying Pig Logo88%

Integrated Impact Score4 Vetters

Expert Consensus

A cost-effective way to prevent plastic from entering the oceans, with creative ways of engaging communities and brands to take action on plastic waste.

Snapshot

The Problem

11 million tons of plastic waste enters the ocean every year, killing millions of animals annually. 80% of ocean plastic pollution enters the ocean via rivers and coastlines.

The Solution

Sungai Watch's river barriers stop plastic pollution from going into the ocean, while raising local & global awareness about the problem.

Impact to Date

  • Collected more than 861 tons of plastic with 173 river barriers. 

  • Organized more than 342 community cleanups, engaging people to clean up mangroves, beaches, and illegal dump sites. 

  • Presented a brand audit (of collected waste) to Indonesia’s biggest corporate plastic polluters, at a meeting convened by the Indonesian government.

    (As of December 2022)

Location of Impact

Indonesia (Bali and Java)

Impact Per Dollar

$1 = ⅔ kg (1.5 lbs) of ocean-bound plastic removed from Indonesia’s rivers

Proof of Impact

Photos, videos, or audio updates; plastic collected is also weighed daily at every river barrier (or cleanup site).

Time to Realize Impact

6-12 months

Fund Usage

Donations will cover staff salaries (to collect plastic from barriers and clean/sort the waste), community engagement activities (e.g. cleanups), admin costs, and sorting facility set-up.

Big Goal

"Protect & Restore Indonesia's Rivers" 

Mission

"Remove ocean-bound plastics from 1,000 waterways in Indonesia"

Will it actually make a difference?

Sungai Watch focuses on removal of plastic pollution in rivers before it reaches the ocean.  This is an extremely effective approach; scientists found that 80% of ocean plastic waste enters the oceans via rivers and coastlines and most of it is distributed by about 1,600 rivers. 130 of these rivers are in Indonesia, and Sungai Watch has plans to tackle half of them with 1,000 plastic-stopping barriers.  

At the same time, Sungai Watch is committed to cutting plastic pollution off at the source by engaging communities and encouraging better waste management.

How is the donation used?

Each dollar removes 0.66 kg (1.5 lbs) of ocean-bound plastic from rivers. This includes sorting and treatment of the waste.  

A full campaign of $150,000 will remove over 100 tons of plastic and fund the creation of waste collection and processing facilities in a new village.  This will sponsor the village to set up 15 river barriers and 1 sorting facility, run weekly community cleanups and monthly community outreach sessions, and collect 100 tons of plastic over the course of a year.

DDC's Favorites

  • Brings people together to help tackle the plastic pollution crisis, inviting in the government, big brands, and local communities to move the needle on the problem.  

  • Use brand audits to call out the big brands that are driving the plastic pollution crisis, while engaging them in productive ways that help them take action. 

  • An extremely agile, experimental, and creative leadership team, who are deeply connected with the communities they work in.

  • Their stunning art installations designed to shift awareness around plastic waste!

Key Drawbacks

  • Sungai Watch currently sends any plastic that can’t be recycled to landfill. This means there is a small risk of it re-entering the environment. Read more here

  • They are a relatively new organization (founded about two years ago). 

  • There’s an opportunity to add more operational transparency with 3rd-party verification.

Integrated Impact Score

Total88%

Effectiveness

80%

Per dollar, how effective is this organization at creating measurable impact?

5
1
2
3
4
5
Extremely ineffective
Ineffective
Average effectiveness
Effective
Extremely effective

$1 removes at least 0.66 kg (1.5 lbs) of plastic from rivers. That’s the equivalent of 35 plastic bottles or 70 plastic bags! 

This includes waste sorting and treatment, as well as community engagement activities – e.g. weekly community clean-ups and monthly outreach sessions.  These help change mindsets and cut plastic pollution off at the source. 

Sungai Watch’s costs are roughly on par with similar organizations that clean ocean-bound plastic, but are more expensive than door-to-door household plastic collection.

Is the organization's team credible and effective?

5
1
2
3
4
5
Extremely ineffective
Ineffective
Average effectiveness
Effective
Extremely effective

Sungai Watch was founded by siblings Kelly, Gary and Sam Bencheghib. They have been engaged in driving action to reduce plastic pollution for 10 years through their partner organization, Make a Change World.

They work with local community heroes in Bali – from Pak Nyoman, a Hindu priest dedicated to eliminating plastic candy wrappers in religious offerings, to Pak Bagi, who became a river warrior in the midst of COVID after working in hospitality. The majority of the full-time team started out as volunteers; see them here

The team’s passion and commitment for cleaning up the waters of Bali, their home, is clear.  They are one of the best leadership teams we’ve seen in the nonprofit space. They operate with the agility and effectiveness of the best social entrepreneurs, and their skills complement each other particularly well. In a short time, they’ve driven an impressive amount of change in communities and the government. 

Does the organization have a clearly defined mission, vision and values?

4
1
2
3
4
5
Undefined
Unclearly defined
Relatively clearly defined
Clearly defined
Extremely clearly defined

Vision: “Protect & Restore Indonesia's Rivers”

Mission: “Remove ocean-bound plastics from 1,000 waterways in Indonesia”

As a young organization, they have yet to explicitly define their values, but through our interactions and the results they’ve achieved, we feel their implicit values are very strong and clear (see “Track Record” for details).

How simple/elegant is the solution?

4
1
2
3
4
5
Extremely complex
Complex
Simple
Very simple
Extremely simple

Sungai Watch’s barriers use the power of the river to collect waste, and the design is simple and efficient without any moving parts. The no-frills solution is robust and gets the job done. Removing plastics up-stream is significantly easier and cheaper before it hits the ocean.

At the same time, household collection of waste before it enters rivers can be even simpler and more cost-effective. Sungai Watch coordinates with local social enterprises that are focused on household collection (EcoBali and Waste4Change) to ensure they cover all potential leakage points. We believe that both types of solutions are needed until plastic pollution is stopped at the source.

We especially love Sungai Watch’s thoughtful and creative work to involve the local communities, which is crucial for sustaining long-term change.

How scalable is the solution-set beyond its use-case geography?

5
1
2
3
4
5
Extremely unscalable
Very unscalable
Relatively scalable
Very scalable
Extremely scalable

Sungai Watch’s technology is built locally from off-the-shelf materials. These materials are easily accessible globally which means this solution could scale along a majority of polluting rivers around the world. Similar river barriers have been implemented and proven in many different locations around the world. 

As they scale up operations in a village, Sungai Watch sets up stations that are fully run and adopted by the local community. This has allowed them to expand quickly, and ensure local ownership of operations for lasting impact.

How well does the solution create self-generating capabilities rather than rely on ongoing investment?

3
1
2
3
4
5
Extremely reliant on ongoing investment
Very reliant on ongoing investment
Somewhat self-generating
Very self-generating
Extremely self-generating

A few recyclables are able to be sold in the local markets, and Sungai Watch is constantly innovating to find new ways to upcycle the lowest-value plastic (see “Wisdom” section for more).

Sungai Watch is also starting to explore partnerships with big consumer goods brands to help them offset their plastic footprint. While it will be a while before Sungai Watch’s work can be fully funded by brands’ plastic offset credits, the organization has been thoughtful about engaging big brands and the government to make this happen.

How efficient is the process of achieving a self-sustaining solution?

3
1
2
3
4
5
Extremely dependent
Very dependent
Fairly independent
Very independent
Extremely independent

Sungai Watch’s model of expansion, the ‘village model,’ is a powerful way to create self-generating capabilities. It sets up self-sufficient centers where local communities can take ownership of cleanup efforts with a sense of pride and responsibility. 

While Sungai Watch is engaging big brands to pay for plastic offsets to fund cleanups, Sungai’s operations don’t currently have a proven pathway to becoming financially self-sustaining.

How much risk is there that the impact will be reversed for any reason?

3
1
2
3
4
5
Extremely risky
Very risky
Relatively risky
Very low risk
Extremely low risk

“Reversal” in this case would mean plastic being removed, only to end up in the environment again, or a river barrier system breaking. 

 

Unfortunately, due to limitations in Indonesia’s waste management infrastructure, there is a risk of leakage back into the environment. This is a self-identified weakness – Sungai Watch is carefully monitoring it and is in conversation with regional governments about improving landfill infrastructure. The organization currently sends only very degraded plastic to landfill; read more here.

Sungai Watch is exploring other options to permanently eliminate the non-recyclable plastic, e.g. via energy recovery, in Java.  This is currently not feasible on Bali because the facilities do not meet Sungai Watch’s environmental standards.

Transparency

80%

How transparent is the organization financially?

3
1
2
3
4
5
Extremely non-transparent
Very non-transparent
Somewhat transparent
Very transparent
Extremely transparent

Sungai Watch has recently been set up as an Indonesian nonprofit and as a 501(c)3 in the US under their umbrella organization Make A Change World Foundation. Sungai Watch will be releasing a yearly financial report moving forward (and we will update this score when they do). In addition, Sungai Watch will provide DDC with full transparency of expenses, sharing copies of the bills for every single expense for the project; they have also shared an example of this from a past project, as well as an average breakdown of costs per kg of plastic collected.

How transparent is the organization operationally?

4
1
2
3
4
5
Extremely non-transparent
Very non-transparent
Somewhat transparent
Very transparent
Extremely transparent

Sungai Watch’s annual Impact Report offers a detailed view into their operations and strategy, as well as their lessons learned and challenges. 

They also collect daily data and photo evidence to confirm each river barrier’s effectiveness and collection volumes. However, they are not currently using third party verification or another standard, verifiable, and transparent tracking system.

Are regular updates on progress made readily available to donors?

5
1
2
3
4
5
Not at all
Very infrequently
Occasionally
Very frequently
Extremely frequently

Sungai Watch has a QR code on each river barrier, which is scanned each time the barrier is cleaned, and before/after photos are added to that barrier’s tracking document.

They will provide monthly data reports with the weight of collected plastic from each site and photos. They will also occasionally share videos, stories and interviews!

Track record

60%

How many years has the organization been in operation?

2
1
2
3
4
5
0-1
1-3
3-5
5-10
10+

Founded in October 2020, Sungai Watch is 2 years old. 

While it shows great promise, Sungai Watch is a newer organization that has not yet been tested over the long term. However, Sungai Watch’s parent organization, Make a Change World, was founded in 2009.

How much positive impact has the organization created in the past in it's category?

4
1
2
3
4
5
No past impact
Very little impact
Some positive impact
Significant impact
Extremely impactful

Sungai Watch has installed more than 173 barriers and collected more than 715 tons of plastic (as of November 2022), which get processed and sorted in 4 facilities. The organization is growing fast, installing multiple barriers per week (see a map here), and collecting over 1 ton of trash daily.  They’ve supported more than 315 community cleanups, which engage local communities and raise awareness of the need for river protection.

In three of Sungai Watch’s operating villages, local municipalities have enforced fines for dumping in rivers. Following their 2021 brand audit, Sungai Watch is in conversation with two of Bali’s biggest polluters about better packaging and recovery strategies.

How long has the solution-set been demonstrated to be effective?

2
1
2
3
4
5
< 1 year
1-3 years
3-7 years
7-10 years
> 10 years

Sungai Watch’s first barrier has been in the river since October 2020 and has been going strong and stopping plastic on a daily basis. Sungai Watch has seen some of the rivers they’ve cleaned start to recover, including fish returning to a river in Denpasar 7 months after a cleanup. 

The use of simple river barriers to stop plastic has been proven through many other projects (including another DDC campaign with Plastic Fischer, whose design inspired Sungai Watch).

How clearly does the organization embody the values it purports to have?

4
1
2
3
4
5
Extremely unclear
Very unclear
Somewhat clear
Very clearly
Extremely clearly

While not yet formally defined, the team’s implicit values are clear: 

  • Scrappiness: with a strong bias to action, they quickly imagine and try out new ideas.

  • Engaging others in an audacious yet gentle and constructive way. They invite in stakeholders across all levels – from local community members to big brands – and are committed to bringing others along with them on their journey to solving the plastic problem.  

  • Finding hope and utility in every piece of waste. Sungai Watch works to find a use for everything they collect - whether that’s partnering to upcycle flip-flops, or creating biochar from organic waste. Waste management after removal is a messy, hard, and thankless process; the team has jumped in with creativity and enthusiasm.

Measurability

96%

Does the organization have a clearly defined "big goal" that is measurable?

5
1
2
3
4
5
Undefined
Unclearly defined
Relatively clearly defined
Clearly defined
Extremely clearly defined

Sungai Watch’s big goal is to place 1,000 trash barriers to clean every river in Indonesia by 2025

An initial campaign with Dollar Donation Club will sponsor the setup of operations in a new village that will collect 100 tons of plastic over 1 year. This includes installing 15 river barriers and a sorting facility, as well as running weekly community cleanups and monthly community outreach sessions.

Does the organization have a clear understanding of the total projected cost to achieve the "big goal"?

5
1
2
3
4
5
Undefined
Unclearly defined
Relatively clearly defined
Clearly defined
Extremely clearly defined

Placing 1,000 barriers will cost $10 million. 

The initial campaign with DDC to collect 100 tons of plastic will cost $150,000.

Does the organization have a clear understanding of what $1 can accomplish?

5
1
2
3
4
5
Undefined
Unclearly defined
Relatively clearly defined
Clearly defined
Extremely clearly defined

Yes; $1 removes 0.66 kg/1.5 lb of ocean-bound plastic from some of Indonesia’s most polluted rivers. 

This is a conservative average that covers all costs (including sorting and treatment) and averages out across locations. Across their operations, $1 removes between 0.5 - 1.25 kg of plastic depending on the site:

  • For the first year of operations in a new village, $1 removes 0.7 kg of plastics. (This cost covers facility set-up and barrier installation.)

  • From year 2 onwards in a village’s operations, $1 removes 1.25 kg of plastic.

  • For mangrove cleanups, $1 removes 0.5 kg. (This is costlier because clean-up is manual, rather than using river barriers.)

Is the positive outcome quantifiable?

5
1
2
3
4
5
Extremely unquantifiable
Very unquantifiable
Somewhat quantifiable
Very quantifiable
Extremely quantifiable

Yes, $150,000 = 100,000 kg of ocean-bound plastics collected, sorted, recycled or processed in the safest manner available.

How well does the organization monitor and verify their ongoing progress?

4
1
2
3
4
5
Extremely unquantifiable
Very unquantifiable
Somewhat quantifiable
Very quantifiable
Extremely quantifiable

Sungai Watch has developed a thoughtful and rigorous process for monitoring the waste cleaned up and reporting back to donors. To document each cleanup of a barrier, Sungai Watch’s patrols use a QR code to record before/after photos every day, and weigh the total plastic collected. After sorting and drying the plastic, it is measured again to make sure measurements aren’t distorted by water stuck in the plastic. 

Sungai Watch doesn’t currently use third party verification, but is exploring it for the future.

Wisdom

90%

Does the solution address a root cause, or a symptom?

4
1
2
3
4
5
Extremely symptom focused
Very symptom focused
Relatively root focused
Very root focused
Extremely root focused

Plastic pollution is a symptom of poor design in packaging and poor waste management. Sungai Watch is attempting to address both the root causes and the symptoms of the plastic problem. 

To tackle the root of the problem, Sungai Watch changes people’s relationship with waste via community activations and cleanups. They also work with the government to drive legislation that curbs plastic production, extends producer responsibility, and establishes better waste management infrastructure. Finally, they engage the brands that are producing the plastic, using audits of collected plastic to hold brands accountable for their role in the plastic problem and invite them to be part of the solution.  

Cleaning up plastic in rivers and illegal dumps is an efficient way to intercept ocean plastic pollution close to the source. Once plastics enter the ocean, they are far more difficult to clean up.

Does the solution have an economic model that is self-sustaining?

3
1
2
3
4
5
Absolutely no self-sustaining model
Very little self-sustaining model
A relatively self-sustaining model
A very self-sustaining model
An extremely self-sustaining model

Currently, recycling and processing of plastics do not allow for a self-sustaining economic model. 

However, this is something that Sungai Watch is actively working towards. New legislation has been passed in Indonesia that by 2030, consumer brands need to collect 30% of the plastic waste they produce. This means that brands are actively seeking out organizations like Sungai Watch to provide plastic offsets, and Sungai Watch has positioned itself to be a go-to partner for plastic removal. 

At the same time, Sungai Watch is constantly innovating to find new uses for the plastic that they collect (for more on this, see the “Individual Questions” section).

To what degree does the solution prevent other potentially beneficial solutions from emerging?

5
1
2
3
4
5
To an extremely high degree
To a very high degree
To some degree
To a relatively low degree
To an extremely low degree

One of Sungai Watch’s biggest concerns has been the risk that cleanup efforts might remove pressure on the government to improve regulations and waste management. Because of this, the team has always worked in close partnership with the government. In areas where the government hires workers to clean up waterways, Sungai Watch coordinates cleanups with their troops.

River barriers are not permanent installments, so they can easily be moved if a river’s waste problem reduces and the barriers would be more effective in another location.  If better solutions emerge over time, the barriers can be decommissioned and fully recycled.

Does the solution integrate into local populations as part of the solution?

5
1
2
3
4
5
Not at all
Very little
Somewhat
Very much
Highly integrated

Sungai Watch’s ‘Village Model’ focuses on creating a hub for each village that includes river barriers, a sorting facility for the waste collected, community cleanup sessions and outreach programs. Each village has its unique set of rivers and streams, and localizing operations by village offers a sense of pride and responsibility to each community in order to ultimately change their relationship to rivers and waste.

“Through our weekly cleanup series, we have made river cleanup a fun, daring experience but it has become the pride of the Balinese. Many local communities continue to host cleanups in our name.”

Does this solution produce any negative impact on indigenous populations?

5
1
2
3
4
5
Extremely
Very much
Somewhat
Very little
Not at all

Our vetting has uncovered no negative influences on indigenous populations.

Does the solution consider its impact at least 7-generations into the future (>100 years)?

5
1
2
3
4
5
Not at all
Very little
Somewhat
Very much
Highly integrated

Sungai Watch’s advocacy and awareness work aims to reduce plastic use and pollution - with the ultimate aim of cutting plastic pollution off at the source.  We believe that this is the most effective long-term solution to the plastic problem. 

In the meantime, plastics can take 450 years or more to break down in the ocean, and damage ecosystems in long-lasting and major ways. Once plastics reach the ocean, they become very difficult or impossible to remove. By removing ocean-bound plastics, Sungai Watch is preventing hundreds of years of environmental damage that these plastics will cause. 

Sungai Watch’s river barriers are designed to be effective for as long as possible, with minimal negative impacts on the environment. They can be easily relocated once they have effectively curbed pollution in one area; they can be repaired if an element breaks; and they are fully recyclable.

What is the risk of unintended negative consequences?

5
1
2
3
4
5
Extremely likely
Very likely
Somewhat likely
Very unlikely
Extremely unlikely

There are no known negative consequences on local wildlife. 

For 2 barriers, Sungai Watch received complaints of bad smells from animals (chickens, pigs, ducks) that had died previously and then been caught in the barrier. In response, they quickly moved the barriers to avoid any disturbance to the community.

How significant are the known negative consequences (or trade-offs) of this solution?

4
1
2
3
4
5
Extremely significant
Very significant
Somewhat significant
Not very significant
Not at all significant

In Sungai Watch’s early days, before they ran awareness campaigns, some communities saw the barriers as a cleanup service and thought it was okay to dump their trash directly in rivers, knowing it would be collected. As soon as Sungai Watch realized this, they organized meetings with the local governments to find effective solutions to regulate littering and open dumping. Because Sungai Watch carefully monitors the amount of waste collected by each barrier daily, they can quickly identify issues like this and take action.

Another trade-off that Sungai Watch has had to make is the decision to send degraded plastics to landfill rather than to energy recovery facilities. Because of this, they can’t guarantee that waste collected will never leak back into the environment.  A tricky trade-off, this is something that the team is actively searching for better solutions for. Read more here.

Impact Innovation

95%

How audacious is the "big goal"?

5
1
2
3
4
5
Not at all
Very little
Somewhat
Very much
Extremely

Sungai Watch’s big goal is to “Protect & Restore Indonesia's Rivers.”


The scale of this challenge is huge: Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country, and the second biggest source of marine plastic pollution after China. On the island of Bali alone, 1.5 million tons of plastic waste is produced every year, of which more than half is mismanaged: either openly burnt, thrown in a river, or left in an illegal landfill.

How difficult is this challenge to solve (weighing this against how many other organizations have found effective solutions)?

4
1
2
3
4
5
Not difficult at all
Not very difficult
Difficult
Very difficult
Extremely difficult

Cleaning up plastics once they have reached the ocean is an extremely complex and expensive problem, and Sungai Watch’s focus on rivers as a major choke point of plastics is an effective solution. 

One of the most challenging pieces of Sungai Watch’s work is stopping the source of plastic, before it is discarded. Sungai Watch conducts thoughtful audits of the plastics they collect to determine which consumer brands are producing the plastic. They use this as a way to raise brands’ awareness of the need to reduce their plastic production and take accountability for the waste produced. Their plastic audits have led to meetings, organized by the government, in which Sungai Watch presented findings to some of Indonesia’s largest corporate polluters. Sungai Watch has also been working with the Indonesian government to improve waste management infrastructure.

How much has the organization demonstrated an ability to innovate around novel problems?

5
1
2
3
4
5
Extremely non-innovative
Very non-innovative
Somewhat innovative
Very innovative
Extremely innovative

Sungai Watch has been creative about designing new ways to change communities’ behaviors around how they manage waste and care for their rivers. 

The organization is also testing out their first community-facing waste deposit system later this year at their Bali headquarters, to start to explore how incentives for “reverse vending machine” plastic collection might work. 

We love the boldness of the brand audits that Sungai Watch conducts: we believe that being able to identify and name the brands that are driving the plastic pollution problem has huge potential to drive rapid change at the source of the problem. 

Sungai Watch has also gotten creative in troubleshooting river barrier setup, testing different configurations and setups to best respond to the varying conditions like heavy downpours and sporadic thunderstorms.

How urgent is this challenge to solve?

5
1
2
3
4
5
Extremely distant
Relatively distant
Relatively urgent
Very urgent
Immediate threat

A WWF paper on plastics and climate change states, “In our oceans, which provide the largest natural carbon sink for greenhouse gasses, plastic leaves a deadly legacy. It directly chokes and smothers a host of marine animals and habitats and can take hundreds of years to break down. As it does, sunlight and heat cause the plastic to release powerful greenhouse gasses, leading to an alarming feedback loop. As our climate changes, the planet gets hotter, the plastic breaks down into more methane and ethylene, increasing the rate of climate change, and so perpetuating the cycle”.


On top of this, the problem is getting worse: half of all plastics ever manufactured have been made in the last 15 years, and a recent study has shown that without immediate action, the amount of plastic entering the ocean each year could nearly triple by 2040.

Impact Stack

4.5

SDG01

Oceans and aquaculture provide employment for 60 million people, provide a key source of protein for 3 billion people and contribute 1.5 trillion dollars to the global economy annually.

Communities globally are dependent on healthy oceans for their livelihoods. Plastic clean-ups are a crucial part of global economic security. Sungai Watch’s work prevents ocean-bound plastic, protecting oceans and humanity’s ability to generate economic stability from oceans.

SDG02

Approximately 3 billion people in the world rely on seafood as a primary source of protein. Marine plastics are adversely affecting the marine life that humans depend on for sustenance. Without healthy fisheries and ecosystems, there is often an increase in disease, poverty, starvation and displaced people.

Sungai Watch’s prevention of high volumes of ocean-bound plastic directly mitigates the negative effects of plastic on global aquaculture.

SDG03

By collecting plastic from the rivers and ensuring the best available processing, Sungai Watch ensures that less plastic ends up in the food chain or is burned openly (which causes toxic emissions).

SDG06

By removing plastic pollution in rivers, Sungai Watch is helping to tackle Bali’s serious sanitation challenges. Sungai Watch’s work directly addresses targets 6.3, “improve water quality by reducing pollution” and 6.6, “protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including rivers.” 

Unfortunately, since the options for disposal of the waste are currently limited, Sungai Watch uses government landfills that may have a risk of leaching toxins from the plastic back into the environment and the groundwater.  

SDG08

Each new village facility that Sungai Watch sets up employs at least 15 people from the local area to run the facility, collect, and sort the waste (in some cases, e.g. when they collaborate with government-led cleanup efforts, these might be government employees rather than direct Sungai Watch employees). Their total team is currently 55 people. 

SDG09

Sungai Watch’s approach introduces essential waste management practices to regions that have insufficient waste infrastructure. By working with local communities, their solutions help nurture local regions to take on long-term approaches to waste management, solving the problem beyond their intervention. Through their work engaging the government and consumer brands, Sungai Watch is working to expand their impact far beyond what they could do on their own. 

SDG11

River barriers help prevent the proliferation of plastic waste into more dispersed environments (rivers, oceans), and help nurture local waste management infrastructure.

SDG12

Sungai Watch’s projects raise awareness about the effect of single-use plastics on global ecosystems, and encourage better waste management practices in the regions that they work in. In addition to their clean-up work, their work in advocacy and media (e.g. brand audits, work with governments, art installations to raise awareness, community-organized clean-ups) raises awareness and advocates for change at all levels of society.

SDG13

Healthy and well-functioning rivers, mangroves and oceans are critical to climate and atmospheric regulation. The removal of plastics assists the protection of the ocean and its functions, which is an integral part of climate stability. (You can read more in these articles from Yale, Shen et al, and WWF.)

At the same time, recycling plastic saves at least 30% of the carbon emissions that it would take to produce products out of virgin plastic.

A focus area for Sungai Watch’s emergency cleanup operations are mangroves, which are carbon-sequestration powerhouses but can be suffocated by plastic waste. While plastic pollution isn’t the main threat to mangroves, Sungai Watch’s restoration work helps call attention to mangroves’ value.  Mangroves can sequester up to four times more carbon than rainforests can, and they are excellent at mitigating local effects of climate change: they act as storm barriers during extreme weather events to protect coastlines from flooding and erosion; they serve as fish nurseries to support local food production; and they filter pollutants out of river water. Because mangroves are so crucial to their ecosystems, any work done to protect them has a disproportionate impact on surrounding ecosystems.

SDG14

Indonesia has one of the longest coastlines in the world, with the highest levels of marine biodiversity, but the country’s rivers are a serious contributor to the ocean plastics problem.  It is the world’s fourth most populous country, and the second biggest source of marine plastic pollution after China. Indonesia has pledged $1 billion to cut marine plastic waste by 70% by 2025 as part of the UN’s Clean Seas campaign, and organizations like Sungai Watch are crucial to achieving this goal. 

Sungai Watch deploys systems that are careful to allow safe passage of wildlife, while stopping ocean-bound plastic before it reaches the ocean. This prevents the future creation of microplastics, which are very harmful not only to marine and aquatic life, but also to mammals, birds and humans.

SDG15

Sungai Watch’s cleanup efforts reduce the degradation of natural habitats (especially riverbanks and mangroves), halting and reversing biodiversity loss and land degradation, which allows natural systems to regenerate and creates cascading positive benefits for life on land. 

SDG17

Sungai Watch is bringing international attention to Bali’s plastic crisis, and engaging the government, big businesses, and international brands (e.g. surfing brands) to tackle the massive plastic pollution problem together. We are especially impressed with how many new partnerships they’ve managed to weave within their first 2 years of operations.

Expert Vetters

Brooke Darshana 's photo

Brooke Darshana 

Expedition Coordinator, Scientific Diver, J Craig Venter Institute

"They're bridging the environment, community, brands, and government. I think it's fantastic... When you're out of your silo, you can create much more innovative solutions."

Tom Chi's photo

Tom Chi

Co-founder, Google-X

“We’re starting to see that this approach is going to be compelling in many places in the world, especially low-resource environments.”

Christopher Verlinden 's photo

Christopher Verlinden 

U.S Coast Guard, CTO, Applied Ocean Sciences

“If I accidentally became a billionaire today, and you put a gun to my head and said ‘remove as much ocean plastic as possible over the next 5 years’, I would invest in this approach. It’s the best bang for your buck right now.” 

Bernard Merkx 's photo

Bernard Merkx 

Co-founder, Waste Free Oceans

“The enthusiasm and energy the team puts into this endeavor is a stimulus for us all to stop waste from entering the environment. Setting up high-quality infrastructure to process waste streams is the most logical next step.”

Individual Questions

In 3 sentences or less, please describe your vision of the future when the challenges you seek to solve are solved.

“We grew up swimming in pristine rivers in Bali; within our lifetime, this has drastically changed.  Ultimately our goal is to see these once-pristine waterways come back to life, and be clean enough for the next generations of children to play in safely. 

As soon as Indonesian rivers are macroplastic free, we plan to tackle the unseen dangers of other types of pollution, which are much harder to intercept - including microplastic pollution,  toxic chemicals from industrial waste, pesticides, heavy metals, and other pollutants. We also want to revitalize river banks by regenerating the soil in the areas that have been most impacted by plastic pollution.”

What makes you different from other organizations working in this area of social impact? 

“We have a holistic approach to solve the plastic crisis by bringing data at the forefront of everything that we do. Every single barrier, every single cleanup is an opportunity for data collection to drive systematic change. We spark conversations with the private sector, government, and communities to improve waste management practices for both short-term solutions and longer-term roadmaps.”

How did this project begin?  

“Growing up on the island of Bali in Indonesia, we saw first hand the direct impact plastic pollution was having on our home island. In 2009, we started 'Make A Change Bali,' a youth-led environmental organization on a mission to clean up coastlines at ages 12 (Sam), 14 (Gary), and 16 (Kelly).

For the past 13 years, we have grown our operations to become a full-time media outlet and environmental organization. Our Make A Change videos have garnered over 600 million views across social media, and our projects have ranged from running across the USA with up-cycled plastic shoes to traveling down the world’s most polluted river on plastic-bottle-kayaks, which inspired Indonesia’s biggest mass clean up.

In all of our travels, we have seen the detrimental effects that plastic is having on communities and the environment. In 2020, we therefore launched Sungai Watch to clean up rivers and stop plastic before it enters the ocean.  

We believe that the best solutions need to be as affordable and as localized as possible for them to be massively scalable.

At the rate that we are destroying our planet, we believe that no idea is crazy enough to protect it. We also believe that in order to see real change happening, we need to be proactive and create progressive impact wherever possible.”

What kind of relationship-building is needed to do your work?

“A lot of relationship-building is needed to do our work. The main relationships include the government (local, regional and national), the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry, the river barrier sponsors (and potential sponsors) and the general public (online and offline).
For instance, we currently work in 28 different villages in Bali, in which we meet with the local community at least three times a year: pre-installation of the barrier, post-installation through talks and cleanups, and finally when we organize a performance report of the barriers 3 to 6 months after the installation, where we present our data to the community.”

Please share information on your current operations, and HOW the organization is executing their plans. 

Sungai Watch is led by Kelly, Gary and Sam who make the final decision on which geographies to tackle in terms of barrier installation and cleanups. These locations are selected through river scouting missions, direct information from villages they have been building relationships with, and through the Sungai Hotline - a WhatsApp number receiving trash ‘hotspot’ location pins sent by the online community. 

Once a trash barrier is installed, its collection rate is monitored over time and if the plastic pollution is not as high as expected, or if the pollution amount decreases over time because of better local waste management, the barrier can be moved to another location where it is most needed, to allow for maximum impact.

What happens to the waste that is collected? 

While discarded plastic is generally quite low-value, Sungai Watch sells what they can for recycling (e.g. plastic bottles); they also have partnerships with organizations (like Indosole) that are finding creative uses for low-value waste like discarded flip-flops. We especially love the stunning art that Sungai Watch produces to raise awareness and spark conversations around the plastic pollution problem. 

Although Sungai Watch’s goal is zero waste sent to landfills, they still currently need to send some of the collected plastic to landfill. This waste is either not recyclable or is too deteriorated or dirty to clean and recycle – e.g. from mangrove cleanups. (They estimate that roughly 15% of plastic from river barriers and 30% from mangrove cleanups can’t be recycled.) Read more about their difficult decision to send plastic to landfill here

From the organic material collected in the river barriers, they produce compost and biochar.  The quality of these products is currently being tested with local farms; pending the results of this testing, it will be given away to villages to help restore their riverbanks.

What are the river barriers made from? 

A PVC pipe is used as the main floating device and a metal grid is attached below the PVC pipe. Each element is attached together using two thick metal cables that wrap around a metal or concrete anchor on either side of the river.

What happens when a river barrier breaks or needs replacing? What happens to a river barrier at the end of its life? 

A river barrier is made up of several elements which can be easily replaced in case one of them breaks. Each element can also be repaired when needed.


Once a river barrier has effectively curbed the pollution in its specific location, the barrier can easily be relocated to a more needed area. For the end of its life, each part of the barrier can be fully recycled.

Is there any known risk of the barriers harming people?  Have there ever been accidents or injuries, e.g. when your team is cleaning barriers, or if a child decides to swim along or climb on a barrier? 

There are no known risks associated directly with the barriers.


There are two primary risks identified for Sungai Watch team members that are cleaning the barriers and sorting waste. Strong river currents, especially during the rainy season, can be dangerous, and when they are particularly strong the cleanup teams will wait for currents to return to normal before cleaning barriers. Another risk that the cleanup team is aware of and careful about is that some waste items stopped by the barriers can be very sharp (e.g. metal, sharp wood pieces).

Is there any risk of harming the local ecosystems with the barriers?

The river barriers’ metal grids sit 30-40 centimeters below the surface of the water, catching most of the floating debris. This solution has no impact on aquatic life as fish and other species can travel underneath the barrier.

What if boats need to pass through the river where a barrier is set up?

For larger rivers, Sungai Watch can set up a system with two barriers shaped in a zig zag, with a gap between them that boats can navigate through. The first section acts as a deflector and the second as the trash catcher. 

How are the local populations affected by plastics?

Aside from the well-documented general impacts of plastic on human health, a few of the specific impacts on local populations include: 

  • Toxic fumes from open air burning of plastic waste, which is common practice when communities lack waste management infrastructure.

  • Eating fish that have toxins from ocean plastic in them: studies have confirmed the presence of plastic in seafood caught in Bali and elsewhere in Indonesia.

  • Polluted beaches: Bali is extremely dependent on its tourism industry, and plastic pollution on beaches has been an increasingly difficult problem to manage.

Tell us a little more about your work in engaging communities, and the creative events you’ve experimented with to raise awareness. What have you found to be most effective in really changing people’s minds and behaviors around plastic waste?

“We have realized that in order to get as many people’s attention on the plastic pollution issue, we need to constantly come up with different ways of getting their attention. That is why we have always taken a multidisciplinary approach to doing just that. Community cleanups are a great tool to raise awareness of where our trash can end up - namely riverbanks before it gets into the ocean. Art installations are an effective way to show that trash has value, to convey a strong symbol and message - and also to connect with the online community that cannot necessarily join us at the cleanups. Our yoga classes are another way we have been trying to connect with the local communities near our sorting facilities. In testing different classes (we are exploring language classes and other interactive workshops), and having people pay for the classes with plastic waste, we want to make people realize that plastic has a value and should not be discarded in the environment or be burnt. We make sure to explain the reason why it is important to properly dispose of plastic when people come in with their bag of plastic waste.”

We love the R&D you’ve done to explore new ways to recycle or upcycle plastic, e.g. molding it into objects and sheets.  How are you managing the risks of off-gassing and other pollution, both during the moment of fabrication and in the long term?

This work is still in the R&D stage and Sungai Watch is collaborating with experts to ensure that any recycled plastic products are produced as safely and sustainably as possible. Sungai Watch is also in the initial stages of convening a task force to tackle exactly this question. 

In their current workshop that makes plastic sheets, they use sheet presses that work at low temperatures, which minimizes the risks of toxin release.  They are installing exhausts over every machine to limit exposure for machine operators, as well as an industrial water system to filter out any harmful gasses, to ensure that no pollutants are released through the manufacturing process. 

After manufacturing, we’ve found no research demonstrating that recycled plastic off-gasses more than traditional plastic over the course of the product’s lifetime. 

Of the products they’re experimenting with, they ensure that nothing they create will go back to landfill, and everything is fully recyclable (for this reason, they’re not exploring options like mixing plastic into cement).

Please share links to any negative press we should know about.

There is no negative press that we are aware of.

The Context

About Ocean Plastics 

We have a plastic pandemic.

Plastic makes life super convenient for humans, and super inconvenient for everyone else in the ecosystems of planet earth.

At least 8 million tons of plastic enters the oceans annually. Marine animals ingest or are entangled by plastics, which causes severe injuries and deaths. Over 650,000 marine animals are killed annually by entanglement.

The issue of Ocean Plastics can be looked at in 5 large categories:

1. Manufacturing & consumption (the root issue) 

2. River pollution (feeding into oceans)

3. Coastal pollution

4. Ocean Macroplastics (big stuff)

5. Ocean Microplastics (small stuff) 

6. Recycling & Reuse

Manufacturing & consumption

Humanity has generated over 8.3 billion tons of plastic over the last 6 decades, and it’s estimated that 91% of that isn’t recycled.  At the same time, it takes over 400 years for those plastics to break down. 

To get to the root of the issue, manufacturers, companies and consumers must confront the reality that a paradigm shift is needed at the root.

River pollution (feeding into oceans)

Rivers transport between 0.47 million to 2.75 million metric tons of plastic into the ocean every year.  80% of ocean plastic pollution comes from land-based sources, and rivers are the main way that this plastic gets transported out to sea. Less than 2,000 rivers are responsible for 80% of all the plastic that rivers release into the ocean. 

Coastal Pollution

A less significant portion of ocean plastics drift from waste sites toward coastlines and ultimately end up in the ocean.

Ocean Macroplastics

The big stuff in the ocean is primarily abandoned fishing gear (up to 70% of all surface plastics are fishing gear). These “Ghost Nets” roam the ocean killing over 650,000 marine animals annually, destroying reefs and transmitting diseases between reefs (source).

Ocean Microplastics

Mid-ocean microplastics are easily the most challenging and difficult aspect of this challenge to tackle. These are plastic particles less than 5mm in length, and include microfibers from clothing, microbeads and plastic pellets (source). Macroplastics (like Ghost Nets) also eventually break down into microplastics over time. 

Additional Data & References

About

We’re levelin’ up philanthropy!


The Dollar Donation Club Integrated Impact Score was designed to ensure that the world’s most powerful and holistic solutions are presented to our members. The goal is to identify acupuncture points of change – solutions that create maximum positive benefit using minimal resources, while triggering a large cascade of additional benefits.


More importantly, the Integrated Impact Score embodies our approach of smart-philanthropy.


It’s not enough for us to give with only our heart. We must also give intelligently – identifying solutions that address root causes, generate outsized measurable outcomes, integrate holistically into existing communities, consider long-term impacts, reduce the risk of unintended consequences and lead to self-reliant capabilities rather than co-dependencies.


It’s time for us to focus less on things like “overhead ratios” and more on the total, holistic positive result per dollar. Oh yeah, and it should be fun!


We believe that the best solutions...


  • Solve root-causes rather than symptoms.
  • Consider their impact 100 years into the future.
  • Produce massive impact efficiently.
  • Care for people and planet holistically.
  • Leverage nature’s and humanity’s best technologies.
  • Are radically transparent – financially and operationally.
  • Are resilient against threats of reversal.
  • Result in self-reliance, rather than dependence.
  • Clearly understand total costs to achieve outcomes.

This vetting methodology was designed with careful care to identify these solutions.



How we calculate the Integrated Impact Score:


Individual Dimension Score


The scores for each individual dimension (e.g. Transparency, Measurability) are calculated by adding up the total points (1-5) per section and dividing by the total possible points for that section.


Impact Stack


The amount of points awarded for the Impact Stack section is based on an assessment of how directly or indirectly and effectively or ineffectively the solution addresses a particular Sustainable Development Goal, using the SDG indicators as a guide. Impact Stack is treated like a bonus of points by adding up the total Impact Stack score and dividing by 10 (i.e. every 10 points gives a bonus of +1 to the final IIS score).


Overall Integrated Impact Score


The overall Integrated Impact Score is calculated by averaging the total scores received in each of the Individual Dimensions (e.g. Transparency, Measurability, etc.). We then add the bonus points awarded by the Impact Stack. Overall scores are rounded up to the nearest integer at 0.5 (e.g. if a score of 94.5 is calculated, the final score will be 95, if a score of 94.4 is calculated, the final score will be 94).

Vetting methodology 02.01 | Published 01.16.2023 | This report's change log is here.