By Erin Taylor
Everyone loves a “Cinderella” story. The come from behind win, the miraculous transformation, the heartwarming tale of tragedy and triumph. Versova Beach in Mumbai, India made headlines all over the world after it was transformed from a dump to a destination, a makeover so drastic that the UN proclaimed it the “world’s largest beach cleanup.”
The cleanup was spearhead by Afroz Shah who worked with more than 1,200 volunteers over 92 weeks to remove 11 million pounds of trash from Versova Beach. While the original intention was to make it an enjoyable place for people to visit, the cleanup also rehabilitated the beach for marine life. For decades, the Olive Ridley sea turtle had not been sighted in the area but after the beach was cleared, the sea turtles returned to Versova Beach to nest once again.
“You can have laws, policies, regulations in place, but if the community doesn’t have a sense of belonging, you can see what happens.”– Afroz Shah
Of the 11 million pounds of trash removed, a majority of it was plastic waste. Currently, the beach has a team of almost 30,000 school children and 500 other volunteers to regularly maintain the beach and engage in specialty efforts after monsoons bring more plastic waste from the ocean onto the beach.
In an interview with Blue Ocean Shah stated, “You can have laws, policies, regulations in place, but if the community doesn’t have a sense of belonging, you can see what happens.” The removal of trash and plastic from the beach brought back a vulnerable species and transformed the community by providing a sense of belonging through the efforts of thousands of individuals who clean, maintain, and enjoy the beach.
Fortunately, the outlook of plastic pollution isn’t as bleak as it once seemed. Scientists in the UK at the Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS) analyzed nearly 2,500 ocean trawls performed by ships from 1992 to 2017. From this data, the scientists observed a sharp decline in the percentage of plastic bags compared to 2010, demonstrating that efforts to “reduce, reuse, recycle” are working.
Many large companies have taken pledges to reduce waste and increase sustainability in their products and throughout their supply chain. Back in 2008, IKEA was a leader in the elimination of plastic bags. The company rolled out a program encouraging customers to purchase an IKEA blue bag for $0.59 or use their own. Since that time, 92 percent of IKEA shoppers choose reusable bags over disposable plastics.
Other organizations, like Starbucks, announced in 2019 that it would eliminate single-use plastic straws from its stores by making plastic free lids and alternative material straws. The announcement from Starbucks splashed across headlines and encouraged other organizations to follow suit. Hyatt Hotels, Walt Disney Co., Hilton Hotels, American Airlines, Alaska Air Group, SeaWorld Entertainment, and Royal Caribbean Cruise have committed to similar environmental initiatives that will reduce plastic waste by billions of pounds each year.
In June of 2019, Canada’s Prime Minister committed to the ban of single-use plastics by 2021 with the statement, “Canadians know first-hand the impacts of plastic pollution and are tired of seeing their beaches, parks, streets, and shorelines littered with plastic waste. We have a responsibility to work with our partners to reduce plastic pollution, protect the environment, and create jobs and grow our economy. We owe it to our kids to keep the environment clean and safe for generations to come.”
The “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra doesn’t stop with the elimination of plastic bags or disposable straws but continues into the development of profitable businesses recycling existing plastic. Many organizations have found success in creating clothing, carpets, bottles, and even bricks for building homes out of recycled plastic. The prosperity of these companies brings solutions for current plastics in circulation and provides products/services, jobs, and other incentives to communities.
Globally, businesses are incentivizing recycling and making it a game to remove plastic. Phone apps track trash collection like a game while also recording data about the amount of plastic kept out of the ocean. In Haiti, The Plastic Bank is incentivizing low-income communities to remove plastic pollution by exchanging recycled plastics for cash or other goods like cooking fuel, or vouchers that pay for schooling or mobile phone charging. Other companies like Bureo and Net-Works pay for collected fishing nets to turn them into skateboards and carpet tiles, respectively.
While the ocean may not be an overnight “Cinderella” story, a transformation is occurring through combined efforts on all fronts. Changes in policy aim to prevent plastic pollution from occurring, communities work to reduce circulation of one-use plastics and businesses innovate new ways to reuse or recycle plastics into desirable products.
Projects like Versova Beach are creating communities of stakeholders vested in improving their local landscape and by extension the global environment.