28 May 2018 Story Sustainable Development Goals

Erik Solheim: Why you are never too young to make a difference

By Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment

When swathes of plastic debris washed up on Versova beach, 33-year-old Mumbai high court lawyer Afroz Shah didn’t just complain. He did something about it. Since October 2015, every weekend has been a "date with the ocean", wading through debris to pick up plastic waste along the coastline.

It was Afroz who first drew my attention to the true devastation caused by plastic pollution in our oceans. From Bollywood stars to slum-dwellers, thousands of volunteers have since joined him on his clean-up mission. They have turned the coastline eyesore into a near-pristine beach.

He almost gave up. He nearly quit when a group of his volunteers were harassed on the beach. But month-in, month-out, these combined efforts have dragged around 13 million kilograms of plastic waste out of the sea in the world’s largest beach cleanup project.

He could never have imagined that three years on, instead of watching plastic debris wash up on the sand, he would witness around 80 baby Olive Ridley sea turtles crawl into the waves. For the first time in nearly 20 years, the turtles were visible on Mumbai’s shore.

This World Environment Day we’re calling on everyone who uses plastic to refuse single use-plastics. The plastic straw in your drink will be used for less than 20 minutes but will take 100 years to degrade in the environment. The same can be said for plastic bags, cutlery or cups – in fact, countless things that we take for granted.

Plastic pollution is a defining environmental challenge for our time. In the next 10-15 years, global plastic production is projected to nearly double. Meanwhile, up to 13 million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean each year, killing 100,000 marine animals.

Beating plastic pollution will preserve our precious ecosystems, mitigate climate change, protect biodiversity – all with positive knock-on impacts on human health. Confronting plastic waste is a fundamental battle that we must fight today for a sustainable tomorrow.

As India hosts this year’s World Environment Day, communities will lead a global charge to beat plastic pollution through civic engagement and celebration. With support from an inspiring cross-section of Indian society, ranging from cricket pitches to boardrooms, we’re witnessing an unprecedented national commitment to this global cause.

You can be part of it. I believe the success of the Versova beach movement can teach us all three things. The first is that we are never too young to act. We need leaders of all ages to stand up for our environment; to act out their solutions today. It is through individual efforts like these, that we move forward.

Afroz Shah is one person. However, ever since he started out on this journey, he has attracted thousands of volunteers and inspired millions. His efforts show us that each one of us has the power to make a difference. Whether we are lawyers, designers, engineers – we all have a role to play in beating plastic pollution.

We must all make individual efforts. But we must also embrace the efforts of young people and make them central to our global movement. We can’t just talk about the need to get young people involved in decision making, or the importance of addressing ‘youth issues’.

We must bring young people to the table and hear their solutions to the major environmental challenges that face us today. We must ensure youth are included in panel discussions on environmental action; encouraged to speak at global events; included in important meetings.

The second thing we can all learn from the experience of Afroz is that we are never alone. When we courageously step up, we forge stronger networks among like-minded people, who will help us along the way. I believe that our Young Champions and Champions of the Earth – of which Afroz is one – are living examples of this powerful truth.

Whether organising a clean-up activity; going to an exhibition or having coffee with people engaged in something we are passionate about, we will meet other strong and inspirational women and men, who can help us build ideas and have a positive impact on the environment.

We will also face enemies – and this brings me to the third lesson that we can take from our friend Afroz Shah. You may fail. People may not believe in your ideas or support you at first. If you are an entrepreneur, you may think your idea is not yet good enough.

But if you persevere and continue, you will win supporters. And ultimately, your idea may be the one that unlocks a solution that our planet desperately needs. From growing demands for the Earth’s limited resources to more unpredictable and extreme weather, our environment faces unprecedented threats today.

We must find better solutions and faster than ever before. I believe that giving young people a platform is critical to solving our planet’s most pressing challenges. Giving up is not an option for us. Now is the time to act together – regardless of our age – for the sake of our planet.

Help us celebrate World Environment Day on 5 June. 

This article was originally published by Youth Ki Awaaz