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Citizens swarm Chennai's beaches for Operation Cleanup

By S Saraswathi
June 08, 2015 11:41 IST
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Over 5,000 volunteers from 120 corporates, NGOs, schools, colleges, running groups, social organisations and individuals participated in the massive Chennai Coastal Cleanup drive held on June 7 morning. S Saraswathi reports. 

Image: Volunteers clearing Chennai's Elliot's Beach of garbage on Sunday. Photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj.

Sunday morning broke like any other summer day across Chennai. But for a group of volunteers spread across the city’s vast and world-famous coastline, it was a special day. Donning gloves carrying garbage bags, the citizenry was determined that in the next couple of hours they would clean up the beaches of trash.

Numbering around 5,500, the volunteers came from over 120 major corporates, NGOs, schools, colleges, running groups, social organisations and individuals, all participants in the massive Chennai Coastal Cleanup drive held on June 7 morning between 6.30 and 9 am. 

A stretch of about 20 km from the famous Marina Beach to Panayur on East Coast Road was targeted. Volunteers started gathering at previously designated assembly points as early as 5 in the morning and moved together towards the shoreline, cleaning up the sands.

This was an initiative of the Chennai Trekking Club, which has successfully conducted this cleaning campaign for five consecutive years. 

"It was the pathetic condition of our beautiful natural tourist sites that prompted this cleanup drive," says Peter Van Geit, founder, Chennai Trekking Club, and project manager with Cisco.

"We are a group of over 25,000 enthusiastic trekkers, who travel to various tourist destinations across South India.  We travel most weekends and one such site is the TadaFalls, a famous trekking spot one hour north of the city. Unfortunately, this beautiful place is severely scarred by tourism. People come here get drunk and throw bottles into the stream, besides leaving behind plastic bags, plates, napkins and other garbage. In 2009, about 150 of us got together and cleaned up the area. 

“The following year, we thought it made more sense to create awareness closer to home. We reached out to people over social media and about 2000 volunteers cleaned up a stretch of about 15 km of the coastline in the city. Since then, the movement has gained momentum and today the clean-up campaign is one of the biggest volunteer-driven activities in the city," he states.

The volunteers not only collect the waste, but are also organised into small units and taught to segregate it into three broad categories -- glass, recyclables and others. After this primary segregation, the waste is transported by lorries provided by the Corporation of Chennai to a waste yard, for further segregation and recycling. 

Peter says that 85 per cent of the waste collected last year was recyclable. 

"Last year we tied up with Earth Recycler, who managed to recycle 85 pc of the garbage we collected. All the plastic was segregated and later reused to lay a plastic road at Madambakkam.  This helps minimise the waste that is moved to the beautiful Pallikarnai marshlands that is currently being used as a dump yard." 

Dawood S Mohammed, director, Earth Recycler Private Limited, explains how our every day wastes are actually a huge source of valuable resources. "People don't realise that one tonne of recycled paper can actually save 18 trees. What we need to understand is that our resources are not going to last forever. We need to conserve whatever we can. At Earth Recycler we offer custom designed solutions for waste management for corporates, educational institutions and residential apartments. We even offer our services at events. We managed the waste of the Wipro Marathon, they generated close to 3.5 tonnes of waste. All that was segregated by us and sent for recycling. We have participated in many such events. 

“For the last couple of years, we are handing the waste from the Chennai cleanup campaign.  We take the collected waste to our yard for further segregation and send it for recycling. We calculate the carbon footprint that we save by recycling and also provide them with the data for the amount of resources that have been recovered from the waste. 

“Eighty pc of the population is interested in doing something for the environment, but they are unable to do so due to lack of a proper system. Earth Recycler works as a catalyst to put an easy working system in place." 

The task seemed daunting, but the excited participants wore a determined look as they branched out into little groups with protective gloves and reusable bags provided by the sponsors. 

Sneha, MD, Kidobotikz, a leading robotics training institute in Chennai, was present at the event along with her staff and 20 children between the age group of 12 and 15.

"The children had designed a robotic beach cleaner and were in the process of testing it at the beaches when we heard of the cleaning campaign and decided to pitch in. This sand cleaning robot moves at a human pace and works on a drag mechanism. The machine drags the garbage on the sand, which can later be collected and thrown out. The children even have a name for their robot; it is called the Swachch Bot," she said with a smile, while the children enthusiastically guided their robot across the sands.

Image: Some children had even designed a robotic beach cleaner which they tested out on Sunday morning. Photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj.

Harikesh, 14, and Jogith, 13, students at Kidobotikz, feel that increasing the number of dustbins in public places can help solve some of the problem of littering. "Most of the time we are hunting for a dustbin with some waste paper in our hands. If there were more dustbins, we think people will definitely not litter."

Subramanian, an associate professor, joined the campaign to teach his two boys, Rishal 12, and Rithish 9, why it is important to keep our environment clean. "We need to educate our children about the effects of polluting the environment. Even at home I talk to them about the consequences of littering public places. I wanted to show them first-hand that others too share the same concern. They need to understand that prevention is the best solution for this problem."

Rohit, 23, and Gayathri, 22, are from an IT firm. They along with 350 others have registered with an outreach programme and often go out on weekends to help the less-privileged sections of society. "Almost every week we volunteer at some event or the other. We have been part of several go-green campaigns that promote environmental education.  After all, this is our society, if we don't do clean it, who will?"

Many realise that this one-day cleanup will not bring about the necessary changes. However, things will change, they believe, if they persisted.

Manasa of std IX volunteered at the Elliot's Beach, Besant Nagar. She was also a part of the cleanup in 2014. "Last year, I visited the beach a week after the cleanup and felt really depressed. So much of garbage had collected in just a week. But that does not discourage me, I am back again this year. I have even managed to convince three of my friends to join me.   And I will be back again next year, and the year after until we can make some difference," she says with determination. Her mother, Aarthi, 38, is part of the Swachhh Bharat Abhiyan in their neighbourhood.

Peter agrees that there is no magic wand to wave and create a difference overnight. The whole idea has always been about creating an awareness and despite the baby steps, we have been making a difference he says. 

Image: The area around Schmidt memorial on Elliot's Beach being cleaned on Sunday morning. Photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj.

For the last two months, the club members have been relentlessly working to create awareness about the ever-growing garbage menace and its negative impacts on our health and the environment. 

"This year we worked at sensitising the public about the evil effects of littering and excessive use of plastic. We had several initiatives like the No Plastic Challenge, which encouraged the use of traditional cloth bags and reusable bottles, totally avoiding the use of single-use plastics. Drawing competitions and story-telling sessions were held in schools to make children aware of the importance of a clean environment. We also had flash mobs, streets plays and mime artists at malls, IT parks and beaches across the city to create awareness.

“For the last couple of years, the Chennai Coastal Cleanup has gone national. This year, 10 regional NGOs in nine major cities across South India, like Coimbatore, Hyderabad, Vizag and Pondicherry too joined hands under the India Clean Sweep umbrella to take the awareness to a national level," he adds.

As part of the event, the Environmental Foundation of India completed their 100th lake cleanup covering two lakes: Keezhkattalai and Mudichur. 

Arun Krishnamurthy, founder, EFI said, "Lakes and ponds in India often bear the brunt of urban carelessness, with several of our lakes becoming dump yards and sewer drains. Through a campaign called People for Planet, we organised a cleanup of four lakes in Chennai as part of the World Environment Day weekend. We cleaned the Old Perungalathur Pond on the 5th and the lake close to the Eechangadu junction on the 6th.  And today, as part of the Chennai cleanup drive, we have cleaned the Keezhkattalai and Mudichur lakes." 

Peter believes that it is only our collective responsibility that will make a difference. "The city generates about 5000 tonnes of garbage every day. It is easier to segregate waste at its source.  We need every residential area, colony, apartment, and corporate office to come up with their own long-term sustainable waste management system.

“Every individual has a responsibility towards the environment and it is only through our collective efforts that we can really make a difference. I am positive that our initiative will slowly make an impact. Today some of the beaches in Chennai are much cleaner and I know of many people who use cloth bags for shopping and understand the risks of polluting our environment. Thousands joined us this year, and next year there will be even more and eventually there will be a substantial change,” he says with deep conviction. 

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S Saraswathi in Chennai