National Geographic Society Newsroom Science & Exploration

On the Ground with the “Sea to Source: Ganges” Team: Members Discuss How Waste Footprints Can Impact Water Systems

The Sea to Source: Ganges expedition is working to scientifically document plastic waste in the Ganges watershed and support holistic and inclusive solutions. Hear from the expedition's land team, who are studying the systems around waste, and waste generation.

The National Geographic Society is conducting the second phase of our landmark “Sea to Source: Ganges” expedition. Over the next few weeks, you’ll hear from our teams covering plastic pollution research from the perspective of water, land, and communities. Today, we go behind the scenes with the land team who are studying the systems around waste, and waste generation.

Plastic fragment. Tobacco packet. Food wrapper. Shampoo sachet. Another fragment. Is that paper? Nope. Still plastic.

Our team has spent a lot of time looking at waste in India, recording more than 70,000 litter items along our transects so far, adapting an ecological sampling model to characterize the “litter personalities” of each site we visit. 

Amy Brooks conducting litter transects.
Photo by Sandra Elvin.
Amy Brooks conducting litter transects.

There’s no mark we individually leave on the planet that is quite so stark as our visual trail of waste. It’s a fact that’s hard to ignore here, at our first site in India, which has seen tremendous economic growth and is still addressing issues of waste management infrastructure to adequately support its burgeoning economy. Through our 10 sites in Bangladesh and India, our team is trying to understand the systems around waste, and how, when they lag behind waste generation, plastic pollution can end up flooding the Ganges.

While there’s still a lot of work to do, we’re inspired by how engaged people are with this issue. Plastic pollution is a complex, systemic problem — but systems are just built by many parts. We all have a role to play in creating change. 

For our part, we’re a team of engineers, but we understand the sociotechnical complexity of waste. Our work seeks to investigate a spectrum of influencing factors of plastic pollution within a framework we’ve developed at the University of Georgia New Materials Institute called the Circularity Assessment Protocol, or CAP for short. The CAP has seven spokes: input, consumers, product design, use, collection, end of cycle, and leakage. With three days at each site, we’re conducting a rapid assessment to take the pulse of the system around each of these factors. 

Kathryn Youngblood measuring the size of a dumpsite in Sahibganj, India.
Photo by Navin Das.
Kathryn Youngblood measuring the size of a dumpsite in Sahibganj, India.

Below is a bit more information of what we’d collect through the seven spokes of the CAP.

  • Input: We’re interviewing stores to understand brands of commonly littered products and where they come from.
  • Consumers: We’re using social media analytics to understand the conversation around plastic pollution in India.
  • Product Design: Through interviews with informal sector workers, we’re looking at which products get recycled and how that can inform upstream design.
  • Use: In collaboration with the expedition’s socioeconomic team, we’re studying economic drivers for repacking staple foods into thin plastic bags and how that might be replaced with other distribution schemes.
  • Collection: With the support of the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, we’re characterizing household waste in India and learning about existing collection systems from municipalities.
  • End of Cycle: We’re documenting dumpsites and conducting surveys with Ellipsis Environmental. Amy Brooks, our team’s research lead, is also piloting work on plastic impacting domestic livestock grazing in waste piles.
  • Leakage: Piece by piece, we’re using the Marine Debris Tracker app to record litter along transects in highly populated areas to understand which products are ending up on the ground. We’re also following canals and storm drains to understand how that litter is ending up in the Ganges.

In collaboration with the expedition’s education team and our partnership with the Wildlife Institute of India, we’re also conducting citizen science workshops and education programs in schools, spreading the word about the Marine Debris Tracker app and building a community of citizen scientists for long-term litter monitoring in our sites. Communities in India are at the forefront of exploring and implementing solutions to plastic pollution, and we are excited to help empower people in India and around the globe with tools to reduce plastic waste. 

Keep reading: Get behind the scenes with the Sea to Source: Ganges water team

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of the world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit www.nationalgeographic.org or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.