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Spotlight On:

Make A Change World

What's the Story?

Gary Bencheghib and his siblings, Kelly and Sam, founded Make A Change World initially as a youth-led call to action prompted by the mass river pollution they witnessed growing up in Bali, Indonesia. Over the last ten years, their river expeditions and short films have increasingly gained attention, even leading to governmental action.

How are they different?

They paddled down some of the most polluted rivers in the world, equipped with gloves and boots, in small boats made from plastic bottles. These filmed expeditions created a view into the world of these waterways and the wildlife affected by plastic, agricultural runoff and even factory pipes dumping various colored liquids.

What inspires us?

Two weeks after their journey down the Citarum River, the Ministry of the Environment announced an emergency clean-up plan after watching their videos. Four months later, the Indonesian President launched a mass clean-up effort to employ 7,000 military troops for Indonesia’s largest clean-up. Since then, over 80 factories have been closed down due to illegal waste dumping.

Q&A

Gary Bencheghib

Co-Founder, Make A Change World

Gary Bencheghib and his siblings, Kelly and Sam, grew up in beautiful Bali, Indonesia after their family moved from France when he was 9 years old. Their passion for the environment blossomed as they went from young children to teenagers, surrounded by rice fields, wildlife and ocean. Yet even as children, they became distressed by the plastic-laden beaches, and witnessed the rapid development of the island and its influx of pollution. It didn’t take long to figure out that the waste was traveling into the ocean through the rivers and streams. In 2009, they founded a youth-led organization called “Make A Change Bali,” a free-from-plastic call to action that has since evolved into Make A Change World. In 2017, Gary and Sam paddled down Indonesia’s Citarum River in boats made from plastic bottles. Their findings, and video documentation of the event, helped raise awareness and led to President Joko Widodo ordering mass river clean-ups. They have ventured down some of the most polluted rivers in the world including the Mississippi and New York’s Gowanus Canal. And it’s not all plastic; most are also ridden with heavy metals from textile factories and chemicals from agricultural runoff. Read on to learn about the results of these expeditions, their show Sungai Watch, and more on the importance of these precious waterways.

In 2017, you and your brother, Sam, took a trip down the Citarum River in Indonesia in a boat made from plastic bottles. What inspired that trip? What were you able to learn by traveling on the water as opposed to walking along its bank?

Over 90% of plastics in the ocean come from land-based sources in particular rivers and streams. We have been focusing all our efforts to address this by going down some of the most polluted rivers in the world. In the summer of 2016, I travelled down the Mississippi river with a group of friends on a boat made from 800 plastic bottles and recycled wood. Although the Mississippi tops as one of America’s most polluted rivers due to its toxic chemicals from arsenic to mercury, we did not see the shocking visuals we were going for.

That next summer, when we googled the “most polluted in the world”, we were shocked to find out that it was the Citarum river located in our home country of Indonesia, on the island next to Bali. The Citarum is located just south of Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, and runs through the city of Bandung, one of Southeast Asia’s hubs for textile production. A recorded 800 factories have been dumping their toxic waste directly into the river and in 2013, it made it in the top 10 of the most toxic places in the world by the Blacksmith Institute and Greencross Switzerland, among which Chernobyl is included. In many ways, the river was the elephant in the room of Indonesia. And we thought that by physically traveling down it on the materials that are polluting the river, in this case plastic bottle kayaks, we would get enough attention about the issue.

By physically rowing through a river and being inside of it, you get to see the river in a completely different light. In the case of the Citarum, we could see factory pipes with various color liquids being dumped into the river, a continuous dumpster on both river banks sometimes on fire and all sorts of dead animals. What we witnessed on the Citarum has been the worst experience by far. It was an awakening as to the lack of action we are taking around the world, but also frightening to see how far we’ve come in the destruction of our planet.

Plastic bottle kayaks on route to the river

Your videos prompted Indonesias President Joko Widodo to implement mass river clean-ups. How far have these efforts come? 

Along our trip, we were documenting our expedition with videos to show the actual expedition, but also some of the people we met along the way who were fighting to protect the river. Two weeks after finishing the journey, the Ministry of the Environment announced an emergency clean-up plan after watching our videos and 4 months later the Indonesian President launched a mass clean-up effort to employ 7000 military troops in what has been Indonesia’s biggest clean-up. Over 80 factories have been closed down due to illegal waste dumping, but the army is taking on the charge, living in villages on the river from source to sea to educate the local communities about better waste management. They are active everyday dredging a lot of the toxic sediments that have been accumulating over the years and removing illegal waste dumps along the river.

What does the Citarum look like today?

The river is in a much better state today. In some areas, the clarity of the water has even come back from what was a black toxic goo when we descended it three years ago. The river clean-up is expected to last four more years and even despite COVID-19 lockdowns around the city of Bandung and Jakarta, it is still in progress.

Tell us about your show, Sungai Watch.

Since our expedition, I have been going back to the Citarum frequently every 2-3 months and felt that it was hard to keep track of the change happening. That’s where I came up with the idea of Sungai Watch, an open source platform to clean up waterways around Indonesia using cost-efficient trash barriers. We use GIS technology and Artificial Intelligence to track rivers that need the most urgent attention.

Here on Bali, we just launched our first pilot village to work with local communities and authorities to clean up every solution daily and track all collected waste in real time. One of the biggest problems with plastic pollution is the lack of waste management available. In Indonesia, most cannot afford waste management service, which means too much ends up being dumped in our rivers. Although river cleaning is a disaster relief effort and should not be a new normal, we hope through our efforts we can prevent a significant amount of plastics from entering our ocean.

Gary Bencheghib

In a recent episode, you question whether COVID-19 could continue living in our waterways. What were your findings?

With COVID-19 taking over the world, our work on the ground has slowed down. One of the ongoing questions I have been asked is whether it is still safe to clean our waterways. Upon researching more on the topic, the science is changing so rapidly. In fact, what we know now may not be the same in a matter of days. There have been various cases of COVID-19 living in feces excrements and in turn ending up in wastewater. It could be possible that the virus lives in our waterways in a place where there is no proper sewage treatment.

What other polluted areas in the world have you conducted river expeditions down? 

As mentioned above, the year before embarking on the Citarum, we travelled down the Mississippi river on a very similar journey floating on plastics. We have descended two of New York’s most polluted waterways on stand-up paddle boards (the Gowanus Canal and the Newtown Creek) to bring to light the ongoing pollution levels of both waterways. From our travels, plastic pollution is a global problem and an urgent one that we need to address.

What are your thoughts on Boyan Slats Ocean Cleanup Interceptor? Have you seen the prototype in Jakarta?

The Ocean Cleanup’s Interceptor is an ambitious project that has garnered international attention and inspired ocean lovers in every corner of the world. Like its name says, it has been created to intercept plastics from entering the ocean in larger rivers. It has proven to be great for big river mouths. But its autonomous, costly and high-quality designs may not be the most replicable solution on a local and community-based level.

Aside from plastic and garbage, what has been most harmful to the cleanliness of our rivers? How can we reduce the level of toxicity or even revert back to a time with fresh, drinkable water?

Plastic pollution in many ways is the visible problem, but not the toxic mess that lies in the water. We tend to overthink the idea that water can be toxic when we can see right through it. On the Citarum river with its many textile factories, all kinds of heavy metals have been found in its waters. On the Mississippi river on the other hand which dredges over 40% of US water, one of the biggest causes of pollution is from agricultural runoff. In many ways, rivers are mirrors of our actions on land. In a time of such environmental concern, it is important that we pay more attention to them.

Sam ran 3,055 miles across America, from New York to Los Angeles, in Make A Change Worlds Ocean 2 Ocean project. What was that mission about and are there any future plans for it?

My younger brother Sam just completed an epic 3,000-mile journey on foot by running across the US. His mission was to bring the oceans to many of the landlocked communities there and inspire everyone on his way that change starts with a first step. Whether that first step is running across the States or taking a step toward reducing your plastic footprint, everyone has a role to play. We are now working on a feature doc about Sam’s run.

Sam Bencheghib

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Spotlight On:

Aquafil

What's the Story?

Aquafil is one of the top manufacturers of Nylon 6 and a leader in the research of new, sustainable production models. The company created ECONYL®, which rescues waste like fishing nets, fabric scraps and industrial plastic from landfills and oceans; recycles it back to its original pure nylon form; and then processes it into carpet and textile yarns to be used in various industries (automotive, carpet flooring, fashion and engineering plastics). The regenerated nylon can be infinitely recovered and remolded at the end of each life cycle.

How are they different?

Aquafil has continuously been ahead of the curve in its industry. In 2008, it established an Energy & Recycling operating unit, which increased energy efficient processes and the use of energy from renewable sources, allowing the production structure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By 2011, ECONYL® launched, and two years ago, Aquafil opened the first industrial plant in the U.S. for carpet recycling.

What inspires us?

For every 10,000 tons of ECONYL® raw material, 70,000 barrels of crude oil is saved and 57,100 tons of CO2 equivalent emissions is avoided. It also reduces the global warming impact of nylon by up to 80% compared to the material made from oil. And they are working with the fish farming industry and divers of the Healthy Seas initiative to rid our oceans of waste.

Q&A

Giulio Bonazzi

President & CEO, Aquafil

Aquafil, one of the top manufacturers of Nylon 6, was founded in 1956 and has since become a leader in the research of new production models for sustainable development. It operates in two main product areas: yarn for carpets (hotels, offices, automotive, residential) and yarn for garments (clothing, swimwear, sportswear). The company’s regenerated nylon called ECONYL® is 100% made from waste that has been rescued from landfills and oceans around the world. The waste (fishing nets, fabric scraps, carpet flooring and industrial plastic) is transformed through a process called depolymerization, which brings it back to its original purity, before being spun into yarn. New products are made and then the process repeats when those items are discarded. They are currently working with more than 1,000 brands in the fashion and design industries including Stella McCartney, Gucci, Prada and Adidas. This year, Tommy Hilfiger launched an eyewear collection featuring styles made of ECONYL® regenerated nylon, and Noho.co launched an ergonomic sustainable chair with the material. ECONYL® also collaborated with Italian brand Napapijri to create the first 100% recyclable nylon jacket. Aquafil is working hard every day to reduce emissions and waste and has thus far achieved 8 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As CEO Giulio Bonazzi says, “We have an incredible chance to push the reset button for a better world with better production processes and products. We can do it and we shouldn’t have any other option but to do so.”

Giulio Bonazzi

What first inspired your commitment to sustainability?

I think it was a mix of inspiration from the location I live, where Aquafil headquarters is; the influence of our customer; and the vision of Ray Anderson. Our headquarters is in Italy in a beautiful area in the middle of the mountains (Dolomites and Alps) and near Garda Lake. It’s an outstanding place where you learn to love, value and respect the beauty that surrounds. Also, the legislations for the environment here are the strictest in Italy and we had to abide by them, which also served as a push to improve our processes from the beginning. Slovenia, where the ECONYL® regeneration plant is located, is a very green country that was ahead of all European countries in many aspects, long before sustainability was trendy.

Ray Anderson, the founder of Interface, organized a meeting years ago with the suppliers and customers at that time. He shared the future he wanted for his company and asked everybody to help and support that vision. We then began our journey to try and produce nylon from waste instead of fossil raw material.

Aquafil headquarters in Arco, Italy

Your parents founded Aquafil in 1956. What do you remember about the company’s operations in earlier years as a child and teen?

I have many memories of when I was young, wandering around the company and the machines. At the time, my father was producing textiles and raincoats. I fell in love with the world of fabrics, materials and fashion, and learned the power of beautiful products.

After university, I started to work at the company beginning from the basics and testing myself in every department to learn as much as possible. Then I moved to Slovenia to lead the acquisition of our Slovenian plant. I lived there for some years and during that time, our ECONYL® regeneration process started. After five years of research and development and 25 million euros invested, we inaugurated the Slovenia plant to be dedicated to the production of ECONYL® nylon. I wanted to find a way to create nylon from a totally different source—waste. A few years later I came back to Italy to run the company when my father retired.

Inside the ECONYL® plant in Slovenia

What is different about Aquafil today? How is it implementing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

It’s very different from those times. Today, Aquafil is a listed company with 16 plants around the world and is one of the pioneers of circular economy for textiles. We are working with more than 1,000 brands in different countries and industries (automotive, carpet flooring, fashion and engineering plastics).

Our processes have changed as well as our suppliers. Who knew we would be sourcing from the fish farming industry and divers of the Healthy Seas initiative to recover and recycle old fishing nets? Also, our work with customers has changed into closer partnerships where we organize take-back systems (Speedo, Gucci, Stella McCartney) and collaborate on redesigning products for remanufacturing (Napapijri). Sustainability cannot be limited to one company along the supply chain. So, when you start a sustainable journey the only way is to have stronger partnerships along the entire supply chain—also with previously unimaginable organizations or NGOs.

We endorse the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and use them as a guide to determine our sustainability goals and objectives. This provides us with a framework to measure and track our progress, and globally communicate about a model for sustainable development. In 2018, Aquafil tracked its sustainability progress for 8 SDGs:

– Clean water and sanitation
– Climate action
– Life on land
– Quality education
– Affordable and clean energy
– Peace, justice and strong institution
– Decent work and economic growth
– Responsible consumption and production

What led you to create ECONYL® and how did you overcome the criticism? That was a bit of a gamble in 2011 before sustainable design went mainstream, especially in fashion.

The ECONYL® regeneration system is celebrating nine years this month. At the beginning, when I had the idea, people told me I was crazy and maybe I was. There was so much at the start that didn’t work as we imagined—so many things that we had to invent and solve, so many changes. I was crazy because I didn’t know a lot, but I was lucky not to know. In the end, it has been an incredible experience that today is giving a competitive advantage to our company and also pushes the business every day to improve its processes, partnerships, collaborations and R&D (research and development). It is never-ending.

Sometimes I tell the story of a famous banker whom I asked for funds, but when I explained what I had in mind, he told me I was crazy and wouldn’t lend me any money. Fast forward years later, we have an amazing product used by brands in fashion and design and that bank went bankrupt. In fashion, we started with smaller brands, startups and designers who were younger or were starting their brands with a new vision. They were the first to choose our ingredient. Then the larger ones came followed by luxury brands. It’s an inevitable path. Today, you are either sustainable or you will go out of business.

How does synthetic nylon and virgin yarn production impact global warming?

Nylon is a derivative of oil, so it is connected to one of the most energy-intensive industries and is used by some of the most polluting industries too. But if you can produce nylon from waste that already exists and is overflowing landfills and polluting the environment, then everything changes—just by altering the source. ECONYL® regenerated nylon reduces the global warming impact of nylon by up to 80% compared to the material sourced from oil.

What is your regenerated nylon made from?

ECONYL® regenerated nylon is made 100% from waste material. The waste material can be fishing nets (from the fish farming industry and ghost nets), old carpets, textile scraps and plastic components.

How does your Regeneration System work?

We collect waste from around the world and transform it with a process called depolymerization. With this process, we are able to go from nylon waste back to the chemical building blocks of nylon and from there, back to producing nylon with no loss in quality and performance properties. The resulting ECONYL® nylon can be regenerated again and again, infinitely.

Because we produce something, but we also collect waste materials, we realized the importance of the concept of design for remanufacturing. Today it’s very hard to recycle many products because they are not meant to be recyclable by design. If we don’t want to be stuck in a linear economy for many more years, we need to design products that are easier to disassemble and recycle at the end of their life. That is why I am so excited for our collaboration with Napapijri, an Italian brand in the VF group that designed the first 100% recyclable nylon jacket. We will take it back after a minimum of two years to recycle it into new nylon. I call this “design with the end in mind” and it’s the only way for a true circular economy.

Carpet recycling center in Phoenix, Arizona

Who are some of the companies using ECONYL® in their products?

We work with more than 1,000 brands in the fashion and design industries. Among them are Outerknown, Stella McCartney, Gucci, Prada, Breitling, Adidas and Volcom. Eyewear companies have also started to use ECONYL® nylon to make sunglasses. The latest collaboration was with Safilo for Tommy Hilfiger’s new TOMMY JEANS eyewear collection.

How can consumers help contribute to a circular economy?

With their actions. As I said in my presentation for Fashinnovation, with COVID-19 as well as climate change, we are the solution with our actions. Consumers can have and are having great power by asking brands who made their clothes, by researching and supporting brands they trust, and by asking what materials are used.

If this crisis has taught us something, it is that we can change quite fast and adapt, be resilient and react. And this is good news because we need this kind of response to flatten the global warming curve.

Any advice for business owners and entrepreneurs who are struggling throughout this pandemic?

The solutions, as usual, are very different for each one but we should take this crisis as an opportunity to decide what we want to bring with us from the old world into the new world after COVID-19. We have an incredible chance to push the reset button for a better world with better production processes and products. We can do it and we shouldn’t have any other option but to do so.

A Healthy Seas diver removing nets from the ocean. ®Cees Kassenberg

You obviously have great respect for nature. What are some of your favorite ways to connect with the natural world?

I am very fortunate to live in nature. My house is surrounded by vineyards and hills and we have chicken and dogs. When I am not traveling or working, I can enjoy the beautiful landscape and take inspiration from it.

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