The “Sea to Source: Ganges” expedition recently returned from the first of several international river expeditions to study plastic pollution in one of the world’s most iconic waterways — the Ganges River.
With a strong group of international scientists and engineers, this female-led team worked in three different areas, studying the land, water and communities in and around the river. They set out in early May with the goal to better understand and document how plastic waste travels through waterways. The information they collected will help identify inclusive solutions to the plastic waste crisis as part of National Geographic’s Planet or Plastic? initiative.
Following their return, we caught up with the team to hear about their expedition — unpacking what surprised them in their field and what they took away from their time there. See below for a selection of questions and answers from expedition members Imogen Napper, Emily Duncan, Bushra Nisjat, Lillygol Sedeghat, Hina Khatoon and Sunanda Kumari Bhola.
What was the goal of the “Sea to Source: Ganges” expedition?
Imogen Napper, University of Plymouth: “To investigate the sources of plastic into a major river system. How does plastic get into the river? Where does it go? Where could plastic be accumulating? Most importantly, this research will be able to provide actionable information and solutions where we can work together to improve the health of the Ganges.”
Were you surprised by anything you discovered in the field?
Emily Duncan, University of Exeter: “We were surprised by the amount of plastic entering the river from fisheries-based activities, which showed that it is not only single-use plastic entering the river but also plastic waste generated by people’s livelihoods. This definitely needs to be better understood and quantified.”
What did you learn from your expedition?
Bushra Nisjat, Isabela Foundation: “We use too much plastic! Unfortunately, it has become an integral part of our lives, not just in city areas but also rural villages. Plastic pollution is a complex issue. For example, small amounts of quality products such as shampoo, toothpaste, conditioner, soap, detergents, lotions, even ready-to-eat food like cake, biscuits, chips, and toffee packaged in sachets have allowed the region’s poor access to these products at affordable quantities and prices. Without providing cost effective alternatives it will be hard to free the planet of plastic products.”
Tell us about your part on the team!
Sunanda Kumari Bhola, Wildlife Institute of India (WII): “Being on the water team was awesome. We were collecting abiotic samples such as air, water and sediment. In addition, we conducted the deployment of drift cards, bottle tags and river bank quadrant surveys. It was fun on the water with such an amazing team.”
Hina Khatoon, Wildlife Institute of India (WII): “As a part of the socioeconomic team, I had the chance to work with local communities and get to know their perceptions regarding plastic waste and their dependency [on the] Ganges.”
Lillygol Sedaghat, University of Georgia: “I was part of the awesome land team led by Jenna Jambeck and Amy Brooks. We worked together to collect data on litter using the Marine Debris Tracker App in areas with high population density. These sites were selected by Amy and pulled from a global data set. We did three 100-meter walks every morning and worked in teams of two or three with our local partners to generate a “litter personality” of each site, characterizing the types of litter we saw on the floor.”
Do you have recommendations for how people can be plastic free?
Lillygol Sedaghat, University of Georgia: “Beyond consumption, moving towards less waste and more sustainable living requires a change in mindset, how we view the world, and the way we navigate through it. It requires us to think circularly, become cognizant and aware of the systems we are a part of and contribute to the waste management systems, and how our everyday decisions impact the environment. We need to question where things come from, how they were made, and where they go once we throw them away. Can we reuse something or operate in a different way so that we can have less of an environmental footprint?
It begins with taking note of how we live and asking if we can do things differently given the access and availability of resources and structures in our lives. And if we don’t have access to plastic-free alternatives or recycling systems, demanding for them. We need to make our waste a priority and recognize that our trash doesn’t just disappear — it goes somewhere, affects someone or something.”
Learn more about the ways National Geographic is working to tackle the plastic waste crisis.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.