How a Mumbai lawyer organized the world’s biggest beach cleanup

Afroz Shah is a lawyer in Mumbai who grew up swimming in the ocean near the beautiful Versova Beach, close to his city. It was very clean in his childhood, and he used to play there on the white sand.

But when he came back from university, he had lost his beach. It had been drowned in almost six feet of plastic, people no longer swam in the ocean, and Radley turtles no longer nested on the beach.

In October 2015, he began picking up trash from the beach every Sunday morning. At first, it was just him and a neighbor, and then he began recruiting others to join in. Word spread and with help from social media, more volunteers got involved.

That first day, he filled five bags. But he knew he couldn’t clean up the 6,000 tons of trash alone, so he talked to people on the streets about what he was doing, and persuaded them to join him in what became the world’s largest beach cleanup.

Every weekend, hundreds of volunteers joined him at the beach to pick up plastic, cleaning up thousands of tons of waste. In all, he inspired more than 200,000 volunteers to help out and by October 2018 Versova Beach was finally clean. It became possible to see the sand again, and over time, the turtles began to come back.

Eighteen months after he started his beach cleanup, the United Nations recognized the achievement with its Champions of the Earth Award.

As well as organizing the beach cleanup, Afroz worked with the communities along the beach to encourage them to recycle waste and showed them how to handle plastic. 

He has not rested on his laurels. In 2019, he worked with a slum community living near the source of the Mithi River to end the dumping of plastic in the river. Nine months after he began, 1.25 km of the river had been cleaned of plastic and 6,000 people living in the Filterpada colony had begun to collect their plastic waste and put it outside their homes on Sundays for Shah and his volunteers to collect and send to recycling. The community became so engaged that they started to monitor the cleanup daily and members of a religious group encouraged the cleanup activity.

Beach cleaning is not just about a clean beach, he says. “Beaches are like nets. They trap the plastic. The ocean is telling us, “Take it — take it away.” So, as the beach gets clean, the ocean is also getting clean. There’s a dual purpose. Volunteers who come to pick up are also getting trained to handle plastic. Anybody who sees plastic here will not buy plastic later. They’ll say, “No, no we don’t want this! We had to clean up so much!’ So, it’s creating awareness.”

The beach cleaning also makes people aware that the problem is bigger than the waste they see on the beach.

“Cleaning is one part, but it’s not the solution,” he says. “We are drowning in plastic. The bottles, packets, wrappers, packaging to preserve the food is what travels and lands (in the ocean). You have to reduce garbage in this world and change the way our packaging is made. So, it’s about what you can do as a person and as a system. I tell people, “Please protect yourself and other species. Have you thought about how do you reduce your garbage?” We are a smart species. We’ll adapt. We’ll learn. And with these youngsters rising up, I see hope.

“All told, the movement has cleared more than 60 million pounds of garbage — mostly plastic waste — from Mumbai’s beaches and waterways,” CNN reported in October 2019. Bollywood celebrities and politicians have embraced his mission and joined in his cleanups.

While he continues to work as a lawyer during the week, Shah now devotes nearly all of his free time to this work. He started the Afroz Shah Foundation to help spread his mission across India and around the world.

“This world talks too much. I think you must talk less and do action more,” he said. “Every citizen on this planet must be in for a long haul.”