Fighting for clean beaches in Mumbai

Mumbai's beaches are covered in trash. While most people just complain, one man has set out to change that - and kicked off the largest beach clean-up project in the world.

India has a coastline of more than 7,000 kilometers, but sadly, it's not all pristine beaches and stunning cliffs. In fact, for Mumbai's citizens, the shore is more like a landfill. The beaches are covered with trash -- colourful plastic bags, bottles and food packages are everywhere, often entangled in old fishing nets or rotting fabrics.

Most people are outraged by the situation, angry at the city government for not cleaning it up or at those who throw their trash in the streets or even straight onto the beach. But one man decided to stop complaining and instead, take matters into his own hands. Literally.

During the week, 36 year-old Afroz Shah is a constitutional lawyer in Mumbai's high court. But on the weekends, he cleans up the beach. It all started two years ago when he moved to an apartment with a view of Versova beach in Mumbai. He had lived in the same neighborhood as a child and played on the beautiful beach, so was excited to move back there.

"I am an ocean lover," he says. "Being near water bodies gives me peace, it makes me happy."

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Indien Beach clean-up, Mumbai

Afroz Shah getting the tractor and excavators to where they’re needed on the beach.

But, the view from his windows wasn't at all what he had expected. "Near the jetty, there were walls of garbage standing five-feet tall," Shah said. He found that going for a stroll was an unpleasant experience. "My beach not only has plastic, it also has organic filth because untreated sewage is being thrown into the sea. It's full of muck and organic filth and when it's tied up in so many things, it sinks into the sand."

Be the change you want to see

Shah was undaunted. Adopting Gandhi's philosophy of 'be the change you want to see' he started what he called "Shram Daan, which means you volunteer to labour, you labour for your country." An 84-year-old neighbor agreed to join him.

That first morning, the pair went down to the shore with plastic garbage bags and flimsy surgical gloves to collect the trash. People stared at them. "Some people laughed at us, some people asked, 'Why are you doing the government's job?'" he recalls.

Indien Beach clean-up, Mumbai

Old hands: The after-school NGO Dhai Akshar brings kids from the slum just south of the beach. These boys are the most regular volunteers.

Others suggested he file complaints or sue the government. Shah simply continued. That day they filled two large bags with trash off the beach. Slowly, more people started to join them. Today, up to 300 people come to clean every Saturday and Sunday. Their support has turned Shah's labour of love into the biggest beach clean-up project in the world. For his dedication to this herculean task he has even been named UN Champion of the Earth.

Global trash

"More than 80 percent of trash in the water comes from land," says Doug Woodring, co-founder of the Ocean Recovery Alliance.  "If we keep feeding the ocean with our waste, it will keep sending it back to us with the tides and wind."

Globally, eight million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year, mostly in the form of packaging material, bottles, cigarette butts. "The global plastic production has doubled over the past 15 years, amounting to more than 300 million tons per year," says Gerhard J. Herndl, professor and chair of aquatic biology at the University of Vienna. "A large fraction of this plastic is not recycled but is dumped into the environment."

According to the NGO ecowatch, approximately one garbage truck of plastic makes its way into the ocean every minute.

Indien Beach clean-up, Mumbai

Only a few hours after clean up, the beach already has plastic on it.

 "The problem with plastic is that it does not go away, and any animal, on land, sea or bird, will eat it if they can fit it in their mouth, if it has the smell of food or algae on it,” says Woodring. "This does not mean they will all die, but it does mean that toxins can easily make their way into our food chain, particularly when the smallest animals and filter feeders are also eating it."

Homemade problem (partially)

While much of the trash on Mumbai's beaches comes from the ocean, plenty is generated by the city's inhabitants themselves. So Shah's second goal was to raise awareness about single-use plastics by involving the community.

"Cleaning up beaches from plastic litter certainly is first a way to make the beaches more attractive again for recreation, but more importantly it generates awareness to not discard plastics in the environment and to not litter," says Herndl.

On Versova beach, kids and adults, rich and poor now work shoulder-to-shoulder to pick up discarded plastic, seeing for themselves the impact of their disposal.

Shah and the volunteers have already collected more than 7,000 tons of trash and the city government now sends excavating equipment and tractors to help transport the plastic to the local waste segregation site, where anything recyclable is taken out.

Indien Beach clean-up, Mumbai

The mound of trash in the foreground will be transported by tractors to the waste segregation center. The excavator helps unearth some of the plastic that's burrowed into the wet sand.

 "Every weekend we clean, and every weekend the beach is dirty again. But we don't get discouraged," says Nilofer Kazi who joined the volunteers a year and a half ago. "There were layers of garbage before, and we can see we are making a difference.” At home, she has now started sorting and separating wet and dry waste and she counsels her neighbors to stop using single-use plastic.

In between his court appointments, Shah conducts outreach workshops in colleges and schools; NGO's invite him to talk about the impact of plastic and littering.

"That's why I love when small kids come up to me and say, 'today there was too much plastic, it's not good, is it?' Then I feel, my job is done," says Shah. "They've understood there's a problem. They'll learn to handle it."

Tons of trash

At least 8 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the world's oceans every year, according to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The report warns plastic trash will outweigh fish by 2050 unless drastic action is taken. Much of the floating trash collects in several large ocean vortices far from land. Beaches, like this one on Midway Island in the remote Pacific Ocean, also suffer.

Addicted to plastic

The floating plastic isn't just an eyesore: as it breaks down into smaller pieces, marine animals mistake it for food. A recent study by Uppsala University showed ingesting plastic can have devastating effects on fish, including stunted growth and increased mortality rates. Surprisingly, some fish even seem to prefer plastic. Plastic in fish is also suspected of posing health risks for humans.

Edible alternatives

The Ocean Conservancy estimates more than 690 species of marine animals have been affected by plastic pollution. In an effort to reduce the impact of all that waste, some companies have come up with alternatives. The Delray Beach craft brewery, in Florida, has developed edible six-pack rings from wheat and barley left over from the brewing process. It hopes to begin production in October.

Biodegradable packaging

As an alternative to single-use plastic packaging - which makes up a significant portion of the waste found in oceans - some companies have come up with biodegradable alternatives. At a plant in Poland, wheat bran is being used. According to inventor Jerzy Wysocki, the Biotrem packaging can be used in the oven or freezer, and will decompose in 30 days - or can simply be eaten. Extra fiber!

Bamboo to the rescue?

Fast-growing bamboo is also an alternative to plastic - used to make everything from toothbrushes, shower curtains, utensils and even computer parts. Work at the Tonggu Jiangqiao Bamboo & Wood Industry Company, pictured here, started mass production of bamboo keyboards, mice and monitor casings in 2008.

Ocean skimmer

Alternatives may help reduce waste, but millions of tons of plastic still float around the world's oceans - and will remain for centuries, slowly breaking down. Dutch foundation Ocean Cleanup aims to collect the trash with a 100-kilometer (60-mile) floating dam system that is supposed to trap plastic waste without harming fish and other sea creatures. It aims to install one in the Pacific by 2020.

From trash to fashion

Some of that plastic could be recycled and reused in other forms, becoming flower pots, home insulation or - in the case of Spanish firm Ecoalf - clothing. The Madrid-based clothing line takes plastic waste collected by 200 fishing boats in the Mediterranean, crushes it into flakes, and then creates polyester fibers - which in turn become fashionable jackets, backpacks and other items.

Reduce, recycle ... and reuse

Plastic waste can also be reused in its original form. At the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development Rio +20 in 2012 - 20 years after the first World Oceans Day - giant fish made from plastic bottles were exhibited along the waterfront in Rio de Janeiro.

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