Turning the tide on plastic pollution through community cleanups

 

When 29kg of plastic was extracted out of a 10-meter-long sperm whale that washed up dead in southern Spain earlier this year, it carried an urgent message for us: we are killing animals with plastic! In a way, I was equally responsible, for not having done my bit. While the news made me angry at human apathy, around this time I read about Mumbai’s Afroz Shah who initiated one of the world’s largest beach cleanup drive at Versova to tackle marine litter.

Sheer scale of Versova beach cleanup prompted urgent action

The sheer scale of the initiative prompted me to undertake a similar activity in Delhi. What added momentum to my drive was a Swedish fitness craze called ‘Plogging’ (picking up trash while running), which has become a rage in western countries. This became my way of taking affirmative action on plastic! So, in March this year, me and Anurag Sikder (a close friend) went plogging in Jahapanah Park in Alaknanda (New Delhi). It was a fun way of taking care of fitness and environment. I thought it would be easy to mobilise people. But for a month, we were the only ones plogging. Despite plaudits on social media and assurances from friends, none showed up. It was disheartening at first as we questioned people’s real intentions, but continued doing our job. Eventually, we extended our drive to Sanjay Van park for a change of location. This was when we posted before/after pictures of trash on the their Facebook page and park authorities took note of that. Some volunteers also came forward to support us.

At this point, it was clear our cleanup drive was generating awareness, so we shifted our focus closer home: our colony in Chittaranjan Park (New Delhi). This is where we could mobilise more people, and inculcate a sense of collective responsibility.

From random cleanups to community cleanups

What began as a random cleanup activity now coalesced into a more structured movement with our first community cleanup in C.R Park last week. We created a Facebook event and sent out invites to friends. Many expressed interest and some wanted to attend as well. But when the day came, none showed up, again! Who would want to wake up early morning to pick up trash and get their hands dirty anyway? To give us a moral boost, my family and neighbour came forward and kickstarted our drive from H-block. We walked around with jute bags collecting trash from parks and roadside, arousing curiosity of residents, some of whom also joined us. As an epiphany, we decided to replicate this drive to other blocks and hold discussions on alternatives to plastic and discuss waste segregation at source. Picking up waste, I think, is the first step to all waste management drives. Soon we will be quantifying and identifying the plastic we pick up and call out businesses to take action. We want C.R Park to become a model colony in south Delhi, whose cleanup template can be replicated in other neighbourhoods.

Biggest challenge is to break stigma around picking trash

However, the toughest challenge was and still is to break the stigma attached to picking trash being limited to lower classes. Through our cleanups, we want to challenge this status quo. We’ve had people tell us stuff like, “I feel for the cause, but I have an OCD against anything dirty so…” But broadly, we need people cutting across religions, castes, celebrities, priests, businesses to actively participate in trash picking to fix this problem. The idea of collective responsibility needs to be inculcated.

The other big challenge is mobilisation. To address this, I plan to collaborate with educational institutions, NGOs, fitness clubs, government institutions to rally more volunteers for cleanups. This will not only increase reach, but the mobilisation bit will be distributed across multiple channels.

And while it’s important to address the issue at source, I believe cleanups provide for lasting behavioural changes and forces people to think about plastic alternatives.

Delhi Police is onboard for June 3 cleanup in C.R Park

The biggest success we’ve had till now was to get the Delhi Police on board for the June 3 community cleanup drive in C.R Park with theme ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’. They have agreed to assist us with volunteers, SDMC support and cross-promotion of the event on social media. The timing of our cleanup is important because India is hosting this year’s edition of the World Environment Day on June 5 in New Delhi.

Cleanups to be concluded with educational, follow-up action

In these three months, my biggest learning has been that while cleanups raise awareness more broadly, it should go beyond just shock therapy because this can leave volunteers feeling helpless in the absence of an educational follow-up action. So we will conduct discussions on alternatives to non-degradable plastics with focus on reducing, reusing and recycling. Second learning lesson is to collaborate, since organic mobilisation is tough, unless you’re an influencer. Lastly, if you don’t believe in your goal, nobody else will. So work honestly, smartly and consistently. This is where the biggest change will come from! Interested people can join me on Instagram @ploggaindia and on Facebook at Abhimanyu Chakravorty.

By Abhimanyu Chakravorty
I am a media professional working for an English daily based out of Delhi. I write on health, fitness, climate change and world politics. Of late, I have become some sort of a climate-change, plastic-shunning campaigner after being deeply inspired by three women who will be rowing across the Atlantic in December 2018 to challenge the everyday use of plastic. Closer home, Afroz Shah, who was part of one the world’s largest beach clean-up in Mumbai’s Versova.

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