Lehigh graduate running across country to raise awareness about plastic pollution
Almost every morning for about 160 days, Sam Bencheghib will wake up at 6 a.m., tie up his shoes made from recycled plastic, and start running.
The 22-year-old Lehigh University graduate is running across 13 states to raise awareness about plastic pollution in the ocean — a project that started as a way to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his organization, Make a Change World.
“We sometimes think that we have to do crazy things to get people’s attention and, for this very project, I thought about running across America from New York to L.A., ocean to ocean, to bring the ocean to people who don’t necessarily understand what the problem is and raise as much awareness as possible about the plastic pollution crisis and offer alternatives to single use plastics,” Bencheghib said.
Now in his third week of running, Bencheghib raced through Greensburg Thursday night and ran into Pittsburgh on Friday. By Dec. 20, he will have ran through 13 states — New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and California — meeting with environmental groups and local governments to encourage them to sign a no plastic pledge.
“We are in deep trouble,” he said. “By 2050, there’s going to be more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight so it’s really a matter of now or never, and there’s no better time to act than today, so I decided to run across America.”
According to National Geographic, 18 billion pounds of plastic waste ends up in the oceans each year from coastal regions, while less than a fifth of plastics are recycled globally.
Running between 20 and 30 miles every day — for a total of about 3,200 miles by Bencheghib’s estimate — he’ll have run almost as far as it is to Bali, Indonesia, where he grew up.
“It’s this beautiful island butit’s just trashed with plastic,” he said. “At the age of 12, and when my brother was 14, we decided to start a local movement called ‘Make a Change Bali,’ where we would clean the beaches every weekend. Very quickly we realized when we cleaned up the beaches, the trash would come right back.”
Moving to the United States to study business management and pursue his passion for sports, Bencheghib soon turned his organization to a worldwide focus. Today, Make a Change World has more than 137,000 likes on Facebook, with the goal of becoming a sustainability solution-oriented media platform for positive change, according to their website.
And he’s using that platform, with the help of videographer Joshua Madre, 21, of Bali, to spread the message of his run.
“I think running ocean to ocean and bringing the ocean to these communities, running is the best way to do that,” Bencheghib said, adding that he had never run a full, or even a half, marathon before he started on the journey. “It’s also the most sustainable mode of transportation.”
Running at most six days in a row, Bencheghib tries to take the weekends off in larger cities to have the opportunity to spread his message. Followed by Madre in an RV, the duo camps out in Target or Walmart parking lots where Bencheghib uses air relax recovery boots to help with circulation.
And when the going gets tough, he has one thought on his mind — the impact of his message.
“I think, sometimes, in a lot of the towns I’m running through, people don’t understand and, so, when I tell them and I see their reaction and they’re like, ‘Oh wow, this is actually a huge problem.’ I show them footage of the beaches in Indonesia or just footage of the extent of how much plastic has already destroyed the planet,” he said.
“People start to wake up and I think that motivates me to keep going even though it’s tiring everyday to get up and start running at 6 a.m.”
Spreading the message
During the second week of running, Bencheghib said he ran through Bethlehem, Pa., and was able to meet with councilwoman Tara Zrinski, who vowed to do what she could about plastics, The Morning Call reported.
He said he was later able to meet with officials in Harrisburg.
During his stop in Pittsburgh, Bencheghib said he plans on meeting with with PennFuture, a non-profit organization aimed at transitioning to a clean energy economy across the state, and PennEnvironment, a Pennsylvania-based environmental group. During his exit from the city Monday, a running group will join him for the first leg of the journey.
But persuading governments in the state to sign the no plastics pledge has been difficult, he said, because of legislation that stops municipalities from taxing or banning plastic bags or containers. According to the Associated Press, Gov. Tom Wolf signed the legislation in June to give legislative agencies time to study economic and environmental impacts from the bans.
Across the country, plastic bans are growing increasingly popular. Communities in Washington, South Carolina, Texas, Rhode Island and Oregon passed bans on plastic utensils and plastic bags, according to Forbes.
Through his meetings with local groups, Bencheghib said his goal is not only to show the extent of plastic in the ocean, but to encourage more sustainable options, like reusable silicone sandwich bags and bamboo silverware that can be easily transported.
And to show his loyalty to the cause, he is running on recycled shoes created by Adidas and Parley for the Oceans, a New York-based organization aimed at reducing plastics in the oceans. Through the partnership, plastic collected from beaches is shredded and made into polyester yarn that is then made into sportswear.
“I’m doing this whole expedition on a recycled shoe and I think that’s a good metaphor to show that plastic has a second life and that it can be used for other things,” Bencheghib said.
Megan Tomasic is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 724-850-1203, [email protected] or via Twitter .