Ice cream wrappers, plastic sachets and corn cobs… Seeing so much litter on Chennai’s beaches, Anusha Parthasarathy talks to organisations and individuals working towards a garbage-free shoreline

Sitting on the beach in the evening, enjoying the ocean spray and admiring the endless stretch of water is always the plan. But when there, one is distracted by the food stalls or the sudden urge to walk along the shore with a packet of groundnuts in hand. And even at the shore, walking means jumping over plastic bottles lying in a bundle, trying not to step on half-eaten bajjis and losing one’s appetite as a foul smell emanates on and off. Are our beaches so because of a lack of amenities, civic sense or a bit of both? How many different eco-systems do we affect because of our apathy? Experts and activists have some observations and workable solutions.

Did you know that the Corporation put a ban on plastics in Marina Beach in 2009? Yet, the plastic and litter remain. The most recent campaign to save the beaches has been by Bhumi, a city-based NGO after it organised a beach clean-up in October last year when 1,100 volunteers collected 4.7 tonnes of garbage in a few hours. “If our volunteers could clear so much, we feel more can be done,” says Dr. K. Prahalathan, co-founder, Bhumi. A petition, which was submitted inOctober to the Corporation, has generated more than 8,700 signatures. “But we didn’t concentrate on the Marina or Elliot’s but the small beaches in between. We don’t visit them because they’re dirty. But why are they dirty in the first place?”

What trash is trash?

Reclaim Our Beaches, a non-profit student initiative has been looking at waste management issues for a long time. In 2010, the group conducted a Spatial Mapping of Chennai’s beaches along with Transparent Chennai, where they mapped how much trash different parts of Elliot’s Beach received at different points of time. To help with locations for trash bins, they also had a heat map containing a point density algorithm to show the most concentrations of trash. In 2012, they released ‘The Adyar River Estuary Waste Audit Report’ and found that the estuary contained 663 unique products belonging to 11 different categories like food and drink, household etc. About 85 per cent of these products were packaged in plastic or silver foil. “Beach clean-ups are a superficial way to deal with waste management,” says Siddharth Hande, co-founder, ROB. “This is a much larger problem because there is garbage not just because of littering but because a lot of the garbage is not eco-friendly. This is not just about waste but about what it has and where it is coming from.”

View Transparent Chennai and ROB’s study.

What do beachgoers do?

Save Chennai’s Beaches is a volunteer-run initiative that has been fighting for the city’s beaches. They have now turned to the issue of garbage and licensing of vendors on the beach. The group donated garbage bins, which were either stolen or put in a corner. They tried talking to the shops to have garbage bins nearby but were met with silence. “More people are celebrating birthdays here and leaving behind plates, spoons and knives. The number of restaurants and fast-food stalls have increased, leading to more people picnicking on the beach and leaving the food wrappers behind. Water packets are the single most problematic source of plastic trash. Then you have the ice cream wrappers that people peel as they walk, leaving a trail. Everything affects the animals and the creatures that live here. Even if corncobs are eco-friendly, they take time to degrade. Throwing so many of them is not going to solve a problem. And it spoils the beach for everyone else,”says Geeta, a member. “No matter where you throw the trash, whether on the sand or pavement, it is going to fly. And when it lands in the water, it has devastating effects. We have a right to a clean beach.”

What does the trash do?

Akila Balu of Students Sea Turtles Conservation Network says there are three big issues that arise out of the trash for the turtles that make Elliot’s Beach their home. “The first is that it attracts dogs and crows, which are harmful to the Olive Ridleys, especially during the nesting season,” says Akila. While the SSTCN relocates the nests to small hatcheries where they can watch over the turtles, nests are sometimes missed. “It’s not possible to find and relocate all nests. And so, when they hatch, the hatchlings see the road lights and move away from the waters. They are picked up by these animals.” Another problem that trash leads to is colonies of ants. “This particular species of ants crack open the eggs and eat the hatchlings alive. We do guard the hatcheries by creating a ring of turmeric and neem powder to ward them off but they still get in sometimes,” she adds. And the plastic in the water is consumed by the turtles, who mistake it for jellyfish. “The plastic bloats their stomach and makes them feel full. So they die of starvation sometimes.”

What can be done?

Environment activist Nityanand Jayaraman feels that the problem is because of a lack of civic sense and not enough amenities. “The public garbage bins are overflowing with trash from the fast food stalls and there are no bins in areas where there is a lot of traffic. There is also no regulation on what materials can be used to package food,” he says. Even though there is no law on how many dustbins must be placed at what distance, Nityanand says that the basic act of cleaning Municipal solid waste is not done properly. “The beach is an orphaned area. We all like it but don’t care about it. Whether it is the beachgoers or the vendors, nobody takes ownership for keeping it clean. The Corporation must set up communities to regulate waste and come up with ways to manage it,” he adds. He also talks about a lack of basic amenities in such public places. “There are no restrooms in Elliot’s beach. And so the men go about their business everywhere.” Nityanand believes that instead of water sachets, the Government should open public water fountains. “This means that water is provided for free and plastic trash is controlled. As for dust bins, there is a lack of creativity in design and placement,” he says.