The Surprising Community That's Holding One Of The Largest Beach Cleanups Ever

Photo: @VersovaBeach1

For the past 120 Sundays, you wouldn't have found Afroz Shah sleeping in, gathering with friends, or indulging in the last hours of the weekend. Instead, the lawyer has been spending his days picking up trash along Versova Beach outside Mumbai in what he calls "a date with the ocean."

Shah first kick-started his coastal clearing back in October 2015, when Versova Beach was covered in debris climbing 5 feet high in some areas. At the time, a lack of waste infrastructure meant very few garbage pick-up trucks and next-to-no education about recycling across most of Mumbai. While sweeping government regulations were needed, Shah and his 84-year-old neighbor, Harbansh Mother (who has since passed away), took it upon themselves to build momentum on a grass-roots level.

What began as a few nature lovers, the cleanup team eventually amassed hundreds more helping hands, then thousands. Today, an estimated 12,000 volunteers have taken part in the weekend washing, making it one of the largest coastal cleanups in the world.

People of all ages and backgrounds (including a few local celebs) have caught wind of the movement, each finding their own reasons to spend free time bringing the beach back to its original glory. "We are clearing the mess created by our parents," 15-year-old cleaner Titiksha Kabra told Sky News. "If we don’t want our generation to face the problem of plastic, we have to come here and clean it up."

Thanks to their dedication, Versova Beach has been completely transformed. The sand, once covered in single-use plastics and household debris of all sorts, shines a bright, inviting white, and an estimated 13,000 tons of waste has been cleared. And the initiative is just getting started.

Photo: @VersovaBeach1

"I just hope this is the beginning for coastal communities across India and the world," Shah wrote on the cleanup's Facebook page, where he posts weekly progress reports to upward of 4,000 followers. Now, he is collaborating with local government officials and banks to restructure the trash system, the coast guard for on-the-ground support, and local schoolkids for field trips. He also has his sights set beyond the beach, toward the surrounding mangrove forests that are too inundated with trash to offer storm protection. For this, he'll be working with volunteers who live in the slums around Mumbai, paying them a small wage for each piece of plastic they collect.

Who says individual action can't spur huge change?

How to start a cleanup in your community.

While you may not be able to round up 12,000 people for your trash brigade just yet, there are plenty of ways to drum up buzz in your community. Here, Bill Ulfelder, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in New York, who has helped oversee hundreds of volunteers, gives mbg his top tips for an effective neighborhood clean up:

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1. Start small.

For a quick but effective cleanup, you can gather friends, neighbors, or co-workers one afternoon. Pick a place, and bring heavy-duty gloves, trash bags, some tools, and a first aid kit.

2. As you're scaling up, think like a project manager.

For a larger event, there are a few steps to make it a success. You'll need to be organized and plan ahead. When brainstorming your event's location, try to get feedback from as many people as possible. Potential locations could be a neglected park, vacant lot, or street with trash-clogged storm drains. Depending on where you live, stream banks, lakefronts, and wetlands could also be good candidates for a cleanup. Trash makes its way into our waterways after heavy rains, so any effort to prevent this from happening makes an impact.

3. Get the word out beforehand.

Connect with local organizations (neighborhood associations, nonprofits, organizations, places of worship, and businesses, etc.) beforehand. They may be able to donate supplies, food, or refreshments and help promote your event. Then you'll need to spread the word by distributing flyers (ask local businesses to hang them in windows) and using social media. An event page either on Facebook or Eventbrite will allow you to see RSVPs and send out information or reminders. Don't forget to contact your local waste management department to coordinate waste pick-up.

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4. Once the day arrives, have fun with it.

Thank your volunteers and kickoff with an energizing pep talk. Find the right task for each volunteer (i.e., take physical ability into account), and make sure that food and refreshments are accessible.

Check out the science behind why giving back to your community is so personally rewarding here.

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