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Views From the Field: Co-Leaders of “Sea to Source: Ganges” Expedition Reflect on Their Post-Monsoon Journeys

Over the past few weeks, you’ve heard from our team studying the flow and impacts of plastic pollution in the water, on land, and in communities along the Ganges River. In our final installation, we hear personal reflections from Jenna Jambeck and Heather Koldewey, the co-leaders of the expedition, on conducting this vital research in the communities of Bangladesh and India.

Jenna Jambeck:

I am sitting on my favorite rock at the creek at my house with my youngest son a day after ending the “Sea to Source: Ganges” expedition—a cumulative four-month expedition made possible by the National Geographic Society and our many international partners working with communities along the Ganges River to research and characterize plastic pollution there. During the post-monsoon phase of the expedition, I was away from home for five weeks, bringing my total field time for this project to two and a half months in 2019. My son and I reflect on this as we compare the creek we sit next to with the iconic Ganges. At its widest near us, the creek is only three meters (~10 feet) wide, but it makes the same bubbling and gurgling sound as it rushes over the rocks in front of us as the Ganges did in front of me in the Himalaya. We put our hands in the water, just as my teammates from five countries did in the Ganges to touch the sacred body of water that means so much to millions of people. It’s winter in Georgia, and the creek feels as cold as the Ganges River, not far from its glacial source in Uttarkashi, India, where I last touched it. We float sticks as “boats” down the creek, watching how far they go and what captures them, and I think about how we are researching the same questions with plastic in the Ganges. 

The Ganges river in Uttarkashi.
The Ganges river in Uttarkashi. Photo by Jenna Jambeck.

On the “Sea to Source: Ganges” expedition, we worked alongside communities surrounding the river to collect data on plastic, asking questions like these: What is the river used for and how do people feel about it? What is done with plastic products when they are no longer used? How does plastic get to the river and what happens when it does? 

By collecting data on land, waste, water, air, sediment, and people’s perceptions, we can inform community-based and country-wide solutions to the issue of plastic entering and impacting our environment. I grew up on my own river as a child and water runs deep in my veins, so I look forward to continuing to work collaboratively on this issue in Bangladesh, India, and around the world.

 

Heather Koldewey: 

I live by the sea in the far west of the UK, in Cornwall. Returning home from India at the end of the “Sea to Source: Ganges” expedition, my first action is to head out for a walk along the beach with my family and our dog, Indi. As we walk and talk, we also take time to pick up the inevitable plastic items that litter our beautiful shoreline—bits of fishing nets, bottle caps, and food wrappers, all similar items to those I documented with the “Sea to Source” team as we worked our way up the Ganges from the Bay of Bengal to the Himalaya. Plastic is truly a global issue that will require a global effort to find solutions and solve the problem. 

“Solutions” was a word that dominated our thinking and actions on the expedition. We were a team focused and united in making a difference, asking ourselves again and again how we could achieve change, especially on days when the challenges seemed too big to overcome. The research was hard and far from glamorous—squelching through toxic dumpsites, armpit deep in muddy, stinky river sediment, painstakingly counting and categorizing multiple pieces of plastic, and patiently and respectfully asking the same questions to different people day in day out—the dedication of the team was beyond question. In addition to data collection, we ran a series of additional activities: education sessions at schools in each community and solutions workshops. These were hugely rewarding—seeing an empowered youth pledging to use more sustainable alternatives to plastic, and developing tangible solutions with invaluable insights, input, and ideas from members of the community were invaluable steps forward in our journey. 

We know we are not starting from scratch and we are not alone. Around the world, there are solutions being developed and scaled: from grassroots initiatives to government commitments to tackle plastic pollution. We also know that our data will fill a big knowledge gap and that our solutions will be stronger through the science that informs them. One of the solutions that has already come out of the “Sea to Source” expedition is our incredible team—strong, clever scientists from across disciplines, countries, languages, and cultures who are changemakers, and we can add to this the many other extraordinary individuals and organizations we met on our journey. Together, we can and we will make a difference—we all choose planet over plastic!

Part of National Geographic’s global Planet or Plastic? initiative, the post-monsoon phase of the “Sea to Source: Ganges” expedition focused on informing and identifying solutions to help tackle the global plastic crisis. Keep reading by going behind the scenes with the “Sea to Source: Ganges” community, land, and water teams.

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