08 Jun 2017 Story Ecosystems and Biodiversity

World Oceans Day: Citizen action, plastic bag bans helping clean up our oceans

Versova Beach in Mumbai was once an idyllic, palm-fringed strip of tropical urban coastline. These days, the remarkable thing about the beach is that you can actually see it.

Relieved of about 5.5 million kilograms (or 5,500 tons, or the weight of 30 Boeing 747s) of trash, this 2.5 kilometre strip of beach in India’s most populous city is no longer choked with decomposing rubbish and discarded plastic.

It took thousands of volunteers more than 85 weekends, cleaning up the public toilets as well as the beach, to make the area beautiful again. Fifty coconut trees, also planted by volunteers, sway in the wind.

Like so many mass movements, it started with a small group of committed individuals — two, to be precise: Bombay High Court lawyer Afroz Shah, 32 at the time, and his 84-year-old neighbour Harbansh Mathur, who sadly did not live to see their efforts bear fruit.

On 4 June, the eve of World Environment Day, hundreds of schoolchildren helped Shah plant another 500 palm trees, an event that attracted Bollywood celebrities Randeep Hooda and Pooja Bhatt as well as politicians from both the government and the opposition.

It is probably the highest-profile beach clean-up in history, and has made headlines throughout the world, raising awareness of the spiralling problem of marine litter and spawning similar initiatives on all continents.

The United Nations has made Shah a Champion of the Earth, its highest environmental award. The Indian prime minister has called him an “inspiring example” to his 1.3 billion fellow citizens. But despite the pop-star-like fame he has achieved, Shah keeps his eyes locked on the prize.

“Nothing has changed for me. I have a clear job on hand and that is to clean this beach and help this spread all over India and all over the world,” he said. “The only thing that has changed is that more people are now coming to the clean-ups.” 

Still, in the last decade, there have been some positive changes for oceans.

For the first time in history, the collective size of protected areas at sea is larger than that on land, and the world is on track to preserve a tenth of the global ocean by 2020. Another focus now is to make those marine parks more effective through better governance and enforcement, something found lacking by some studies.

Efforts to reduce the vast numbers of plastic bags clogging drains and waterways and leaking into the ocean are also gathering pace. Kenya announced a far-reaching plastic bag ban in March, following the example set by countries including Rwanda and Bangladesh. Many more nations are imposing charges or minimum thickness standards so bags get re-used.

Just for World Environment Day, volunteers lined up 150 beach clean-ups across Canada, as well as others in East Africa, Spain, the Baltic Sea, Lebanon, the Greek Islands, Egypt, Australia, the United States, Norway and even the Arctic. Many similar efforts are going on elsewhere.

Shah’s intention is to clean all 19 beaches in Mumbai first and use this model over the rest of India to clean all its beaches, rivers and streams. He wants people to take the initiative rather than waiting for government to do something about it.

Then there is preventing upstream waste: “I want to make sure that trash doesn’t continue to flow, to get people to use less plastic, produce less trash in the first place.”

As an estimated 80 per cent of pollution in the ocean comes from land and 80 per cent of ocean plastic comes from land-based sources, this approach makes sense. Currently, there are more microplastic bits in the ocean than there are stars in the sky, and by 2050, there could be more plastic there than fish.

In February 2017, UN Environment launched the #CleanSeas campaign, urging governments to pass policies to reduce plastic waste and calling on consumers to change their throwaway habits – before irreversible damage is done to the environment.

The power of active individuals to make a difference is reflected in the #CleanSeas campaign: the website urges people to make pledges to take action, from avoiding cosmetics with microbeads, single-use plastic straws and plastic shopping bags to bringing their own cups to work and, of course, cleaning up the beach.

People everywhere are also welcome to generate their own pledges to act for plastic-free oceans. If you’re planning a beach clean-up event, you can register it on the #CleanSeas website and join the global movement.