The award-winning community beach clean up in Mumbai.

UN Patron of the Oceans, Lewis Pugh, joins Afroz Shah and Versova Resident Volunteers (VRV) in Mumbai, India for the largest beach clean-up in history. UNEP image and copyright

Organizer of world’s largest beach clean-up wins top UN Environmental Award

2 December, 2016 (UNEP) – Indian lawyer Afroz Shah has been announced as one of the winners of the United Nations’ top environmental accolade, the Champions of the Earth award, for his efforts in launching what has become the world’s largest beach clean-up in Mumbai.

Awarded in the category of Action and Inspiration, Mr. Shah is being recognised for inspiring hundreds of volunteers over the past year to help rid Mumbai’s Versova Beach of 4,000 tons of plastic, glass and filth that had built up on the sand.

Head of UN Environment Erik Solheim, who joined Mr. Shah for a day collecting waste from the beach in October, said: “Mr. Shah’s efforts, and the hundreds of volunteers he’s inspired, is a wonderful example of citizen action and reminds the rest of the world that even the most ambitious, global agreements are only as good as the individual action and determination that brings them to life.

“His outstanding leadership is drawing global attention to the devastating impacts of marine litter.”
In October 2015, Mr. Shah and his 84-year-old neighbour Harbanash Mathur, since deceased, decided they had to do something drastic to reclaim the beach from the rubbish that had overwhelmed it. So they rolled up their sleeves and began the seemingly impossible task of clearing the 2.5 kilometre strand. The litter, including plastic bags, cement sacks, glass bottles, pieces of clothing, and shoes, covered every inch of sand and measured shoulder height in places.

Mr. Shah said: “This award is in honour of the hundreds of volunteers who have joined me over the past year to clean up our beach and ocean. I am an ocean lover and feel that we owe a duty to our ocean to make it free of plastic.

“I just hope this is the beginning for coastal communities across India and the world – we have to win the fight against marine dumping and that involves getting our hands dirty. We humans need to reignite our bond with the ocean and we don’t have to wait for anybody else to help us do that.”

Mr. Shah rallied residents and fisherfolk in the area by knocking on doors and explaining the damage marine litter causes. In just over a year, what began as a two-person crusade has mushroomed into a 1,500-strong operation of community volunteers of all ages and walks of life to make their beach, mangroves and ocean healthier and safer for humans and marine species alike.

Mr. Solheim added: “Together volunteers have laboured under the baking Indian sun for eight hours a day every weekend, using diggers, trucks and their bare hands to remove 4,000 tons of plastic from their beach. In doing so, they are sending a strong signal to political authorities that they should enact policies that reduce the influx of plastic into the oceans.”

Lots of plastic rubbish beside boats in Mumbai.

The beach at Mumbai was in a desparate need of the clean-up.

Each year, people around the world produce nearly 300 million tons of plastic and a similar amount of plastic waste. Of that, as much as 13 million tons finds its way into our oceans. It is as if we were dumping two garbage trucks of plastic into the ocean every minute. The plastic wreaks havoc on our fisheries, marine ecosystems and economies, costing up to $13 billion per year in environmental damage.

Mr. Shah plans to expand his group’s operation to prevent rubbish from washing down the local creek and onto the beach. He also wants to clean-up the coastline’s litter-choked mangrove forests, which act as a vital natural defence against storm surges, and to inspire similar groups across India and the rest of the world to launch their own clean-up movements.

About Champions of the Earth

The annual Champions of the Earth prize is awarded to outstanding leaders from government, civil society and the private sector whose actions have had a positive impact on the environment.

Since being founded twelve years ago, the awards have recognized 78 laureates – ranging from leaders of nations to grassroots activists – in the categories of policy, science, business and civil society.

Mr. Shah joins Jose Sarukhan Kermez, Mexican research biologist (Life-time Achievement); Rwandan President, Paul Kagame (Policy Leadership); Moroccan Sustainable Energy Agency, Masen (Entrepreneurial Vision); and Leyla Acaroglu, Australian sustainability innovator (Science and Innovation); and a posthumous Action and Inspiration award for Berta Cáceres, Honduran rights campaigner killed in March 2016.

The awards will be given out as part of a high-level reception hosted by the Government of Mexico at the 13th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Cancun, December 2, 2016.