Step by step. 8 million steps actually. That is how recent college graduate and 22-year-old Sam Bencheghib approached his historic run across the United States. That is also how he believes we can all individually and together make a big impact on ridding the world of plastic waste.
Bencheghib ran 3,055 miles across from Battery Park in New York City to Santa Monica over the course of 191 days, departing on July 26th 2019 and arriving at the Pacific on February 1st, 2020. Bencheghib is the first person on record to have run from coast to coast in the United States only wearing recycled plastic shoes. All this, and he had never run a half marathon before he embarked on this journey. He was running in collaboration with Parley for the Oceans and Adidas in order to raise awareness for plastic waste and its impact on marine environments.
The Ocean2Ocean finish line event was planned in conjunction with Heal the Bay, as they were hosting one of their monthly beach clean-up initiatives at Santa Monica State Beach. Dozens of volunteers were given a primer on the challenges littoral environments face due to plastic and other waste. From there they criss-crossed the beach, collecting trash and tallying what they found. That information is then compiled by Heal the Bay and sent to local governments in order to enact new environmentally-conscious legislation. (The plastic ban in LA was in part inspired by findings documented by Heal the Bay).
"No matter where you live, you live in a watershed. if you're up in the mountains, if you're down at the beach and everywhere in between, water is flowing through the watershed system. But it is not just carrying water, it's trash, pesticides...whatever is ending up in the street essentially will go out to the ocean unfiltered. That is why urban runoff is the number one source of ocean pollution today" remarks Danielle, the Outreach Coordinator for Heal the Bay.
She continues, "Santa Monica has an urban runoff recycling facility which takes a half a million gallons a day during when it's not raining and they'll recycle back the water. But for the most part, um, all the water that's in our city is going through that storm drain system, untreated out to the ocean. This piece is really important because this is kind of the last chance we have to pick it up before it goes into the ocean. Once it's in there, there's no really getting it out."
"Cigarettes, cigarettes, cigarette butts, and Boston cigarette butts are actually 80% plastic and the problem with plastic is it does not biodegrade...It actually photo degrades, which means it would break up into a bunch of really tiny pieces and actually dissipate even more at the microscopic level, what we call microplastics."
Friends from as far afield as New York, Colorado, and Mimi flew in to support Bencheghib and join in the beach cleaning effort, including family from Bali and France. Local ocean activists, students, curious onlookers, the Adidas Runners LA group, and Heal the Bay were all on-hand to cheer Bencheghib's crossing of the finish line, only steps away from the water. Running with fans, friends, and members of the Adidas Runners group for the last three miles, Bencheghib was greeted to a crowd of cheering admirers at the shoreline. After jumping into the Ocean on the 191st day of his trek, Bencheghib embraced the crowd, who lifted him up in the air and chanted his name.
The focus of this event was not only on getting actual waste out of the ocean by the beach cleanup, but also to raise awareness.
Mike Long, Director of Global Operations, says "We started as this collaboration space to build relationships with brands, governments, scientific leaders, and business leaders in order to create solutions for the ocean and to create a clean healthy planet. But one thing's for sure, we never discount the single individual. Sam is this amazing individual who really carries this passion to save the ocean. And we really thought we better get involved and better support them on this amazing journey across the US."
Along his half-year trip, Bencheghib had thousands of face-to-face conversations with school children, college students, business leaders, and politicians of all levels, asking them to sign the Parley AIR pledge. AIR stands for avoid, intercept, and redesign.
"Through avoid, we're educating and communicating the issues and more importantly, the solutions. Parley is working all over the world in over 20 countries, with hundreds of thousands of volunteers each and every day intercepting plastic through the largest global cleanup network that's in existence right now through efforts like beach cleanups and helping...communities that don't have any infrastructure capacity. And then there is redesign, redesigning not only the material but our behaviors, our mindset. We really have to our redesign the material, so parlay is just committed to this idea of the material revolution", says Mike Long.
Through big cities and desolate deserts, scorching summer heat and feet of snow in mountainous subzero climes, Bencheghib persevered and managed to run around 20 to 30 miles a day. That is 149 marathons. Even as an achilles injury forced him to use walking sticks (that he soon discarded), Bencheghib pushed through, inspired by the conversations he had had and the distant glimmer of Los Angeles on the horizon.
Bencheghib's journey across the country is the epitome of what organizations like Parley, Make a Change World, and Heal the Bay are trying to accomplish. Big gestures and events likeOcean2Ocean that bring attention to specific issues are supported with individual face-to-face conversations that inspire individual action and the spread of important messaging. Bencheghib proudly recalls hearing about students he had spoken with along his adventure that were now spear-heading initiative to combat plastic waste in their own communities.
"People would tell me that they started running because they're motivated by my story or are actually training for a marathon that they thought they could never do. So many people have told me that now they don't use plastic bottles any more. And as simple as that may seem, I think that's really how I could wake up every day and keep going. I would receive messages where I would talk to schools a month later they would have made make statues and art out of plastic that they would find around laying around. Teachers that I had met sent me papers and essays that their kids had written on plastic" Bencheghib said.
Equally as motivating but more troubling was the trail of plastic waste he found along his route, even in the most secluded and picturesque corners of the country. Most shocking for Bencheghib is the proliferation of laws that had been passed to counter-act environmental activism, such as "ban the ban" rules that disallow lower levels of government from banning single-use plastic. Thirteen states have enacted such legislation, of which Bencheghib ran through eight.
"One thing that really stood out were my conversations with small city mayors. I also spoke to the governor of Colorado and the state Lieutenant governor of Kansas. What I realized is that it's really hard in the U S to pass legislation. It's way harder than in a country like Indonesia" says Bencheghib, who grew up on the Indonesian island of Bali.
Step by step, Bencheghib was reminded of efforts like the Adidas and Parley collaboration to to create shoes that are made without virgin plastic. Working hand in hand with Parley, Adidas has pledged not to use any virgin plastic in their products by the year 2024. Each step in these special shoes was a reminder of his mission and the inspiring work his allies were part of around the world.
"It's all all about a shift in mindset. At this point, there's no recycling infrastructure that you can put into place to handle the consumption and disposal of plastic that's there. In order to really get us out of this mess that we're in, we really have to reinvent the material" says Mike Long.
"It's a problem that we have to face through collaboration. And it's a problem that we as individuals exists because of the billions of decisions we make each and every day. So it's not just on one business or one government, it's on each and every one of us take care of this problem."
Parley for the Oceans is the global network where creators, thinkers and leaders from the creative industries, brands, governments and environmental groups come together to raise awareness for the beauty and fragility of the oceans and collaborate on projects that can end their destruction. The organization has formed alliances with major corporations including adidas, Anheuser Busch InBev (Corona), American Express; the United Nations; the Maldives and collaborator spanning the worlds of science, art, fashion, design, entertainment, sports, and space and ocean exploration.
Make A Change World is an organization started by Bencheghib and his older brother Gary when they were children living in Bali. By helping innovate new ways of controlling and reversing the onslaught of plastic waste they were witnessing firsthand in Bali, they have been able to make a physical impact while also creating media content to help spread their message. The partnership with Parley on this cross-country trip was just the latest effort, but will be far from the last. Bencheghib, Gary, and their sister Kelly will be launching the headquarters of Make A Change World in New York City in the coming months.
"They're my two best friends and I'm moving to New York in a few days with them, so I can't wait to continue working with them...on really making a change as an environmental media organization and try to become the go to media that people can go to for tips or suggestions on how to live more sustainably" Bencheghib said.
As Bencheghib's brother Gary brother puts it, "After one crazy idea, we've always been inspired to go on that next crazy idea. So who knows what will be next."
One step at a time.
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