“The weirdest thing I’ve found at a beach while cleaning up has been a human skull,” says Lisbon Ferrao, a marketing professional whose passion, and side venture for many years now has been cleaning the beaches of Mumbai city. Today, the group ‘Vasai Beach Cleaners’ is one step toward Mumbaikars having spotless sands once again.
The story begins in the year 2017. Lisbon along with his wife Zsuzsanna Salda, his son Lucius and daughter Nascha had an entire day of frolic at the beach well planned out. The kids were young and couldn’t wait to get started building their castles and chasing the waves. However, the day turned out to be very different from what they imagined.
“There was so much plastic lying around the beach in Borivali we visited that my kids began playing with the thrash,” says the 46-year-old.
As Lisbon adds, plastic wasn’t the only kind of thrash at the beach. “My daughter picked up a whisky bottle and began filling it with sand.”
This perturbed him.
“When I was young and we would go to the beach for the day, I remember having a fun time. There was sea and sand and it was clean. But when I saw my kids playing with plastic bags, I realised they wouldn’t have any fond memories of beaches when they were older. Moreover, I did not want their childhood to be ruined.”
So Lisbon and his wife made a pact.
“Every time we would visit the beach, we would begin by clearing off a few plastic bags and bottles and dispose of these in dry waste bins,” he says, adding that after a few times of doing this, he put up a post on Facebook with the time and date for a beach clean-up.
Though many showed interest and applauded the act, no one turned up.
Disheartened, the family took things into their own hands.
“My wife rolled up her sleeves and began picking the rubbish littered on the sands, and my kids followed suit,” recounts Lisbon. The pictures that they clicked, they shared on Facebook and through them highlighted the ‘before and after scenes’ at the beach.
What came next changed things dramatically.
The beach clean-up pictures went viral!
People were impressed. The media was scrambling to get their articles out and Lisbon Ferrao and his family were applauded by everyone for the kind of work they had begun. Soon volunteers started pouring in from all over Mumbai, each wanting to join Lisbon and clean the beaches.
Unknowingly, an act that started with four people had turned into an initiative driven by “12,000 volunteers”. He adds that these are people who may have come for a day or may have continued to attend the weekly clean-up sessions. Regardless, the number represents 12,000 people who have taken out an hour or more to clean their city at some point in time.
With the platform gaining impetus, Lisbon decided to launch it formally and to call themselves the ‘Vasai Beach Cleaners’. The group handpicks plastic and other trash across the beaches of the city and Lisbon says they have cleared over 650 tonnes of plastic to date.
Creating waves of change
Vasai Beach Cleaners has a simple aim. They wish to create a trash-free environment for animals, birds, and forest ecosystems to thrive. An integral part of the platform is the volunteers.
“When someone new comes in I say don’t come with the intention that you’ll change the world in one day, come with the intent to learn and enjoy,” says Lisbon.
He also advises volunteers to pay attention to things like where the garbage comes in from and how long it has been there since. The reason, he says, is each piece of thrash has a story.
To this, Zsuzsanna adds that while cleaning if they find soft toys in good condition, she takes them home and washes and dries them and once clean, leaves them on benches at the park for kids to find. “There are very few green and free places left in Mumbai and Vasai is lucky to still have some still intact. Most of us have become very detached from nature, which is our home so we must treat the outside spaces with the same respect, love, and care as we do our houses.”
‘We have people joining us every week.’
While the couple spearheads the cleaning operations, it does require a lot of planning.
“The intensity and amount of cleaning that can be done are dependent on the season,” says Lisbon. “During the monsoons, the sand gets heavy and additionally, there is a lot of plastic that is thrown by the ocean back onto the beach, making cleaning up a non-yielding process.”
In summers, the heat is unforgiving and people cannot stand to clean. Winters is a favourable time. The clean-ups are held every Sunday from 7.30 am to 8.30 am.
The group has worked on seven beaches in Vasai, with the focus on Bhuigaon beach.
While there are 10 to 15 regular faces, there are new joiners every week. A typical beach clean-up goes on for around an hour, with the trash picked up ranging from backpacks, cement bags, milk packets, fishing nets, ropes, single-use cups, bags, toys, toothbrushes, medicines bottles, etc.
“To extend the process of sustainability,” says Lisbon, “the equipment for collecting the trash is reusable too. This includes cement bags, tarps, sheets, and safety gloves that are washed after each cleanup.”
Though hard work, the process must be made enjoyable, believes Lisbon. To see to this, volunteers are provided with homemade snacks and fruits as refreshments.
One of them, Julius Lobo, says he enjoys his Sunday mornings spent with the Vasai Beach Cleaners collecting plastic trash that covers the shoreline and destroys the environment. He says, “Big thanks to the group for accepting me into the family of superheroes. The initiative is an effort into creating awareness of our environmental issues. Not just this, it also focuses on mangrove conservation and plastic abuse.”
But, while the beach clean-ups are an integral part of Lisbon’s social outreach, it isn’t the only one.
Beauty from trash
“We realised that most of the trash we were clearing at the beaches was going to landfills. On one hand, we were clearing plastics from the beach so it does not go into the ocean, but on the other hand, it was taken by the local authorities, ended up on land, and burned,” says Lisbon.
This is when he decided to start making paver blocks and plastic granules from this recycled material to patch up potholes on roads. Still in its initial stages, the project involves the trash being shredded by a unit in Vasai that does this commercially and the resulting powder can be used to make the blocks.
“The prototype results show that 40 per cent of plastic is being used in the paver block,” says Lisbon.
He has also made planters out of the powder and says he has sold 150 to date to nurseries.
However, the road has been a tiring one for the social worker and his family. He says it isn’t easy seeing to the costs involved in these activities and they are sometimes time-consuming.
“We talk to people about our initiative, put messages out on social platforms, give presentations in schools and colleges, and meet gym owners, banks, NGOs, and youth groups, in the attempt to get their support. This is all time-consuming and sometimes disappointing when there is no support,” says Lisbon.
To add to this, there is the problem of funds.
Though the venture is self-funded and runs on donations by team members, Lisbon says it became tough to sustain sometimes. However now, a New Zealand-based NGO, eyesea.org which focuses on mapping plastic around the world has shown interest in the cause and has been supporting Lisbon’s beach clean-up venture since 2022.
“They take care of the expenses associated with cleaning drives, such as gloves for the volunteers, equipment etc,” he adds.
But for Lisbon and his family, even tough times cannot deter them from their objective of cleaning the city’s beaches.
“I find it strange that people would spend money to go abroad for a vacation to a beautiful beach, or mountains when they would just let their own country drown in the trash,” he says. “I assure you that even if you pick up a single piece of plastic from the ground or recycle, it will have an impact on the planet.”
Edited by Yoshita Rao
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