National Geographic Society Newsroom Science & Exploration

“Sea to Source: Ganges” Expedition Team Releases Key Findings

The international, female-led interdisciplinary expedition team traveled the transboundary Ganges before and after the monsoon season and used rapid assessment methods for research.

Between May to December 2019, an international, female-led team traveled 2,575 kilometers (1,600 miles) of the transboundary Ganges before and after the monsoon season. The National Geographic “Sea to Source: Ganges” river expedition used rapid assessment methods to provide the first empirical baseline data on the source, quantities, and flow of plastic pollution along the length of the Ganges River system — from the Bay of Bengal to the Himalaya. Today, the team released a summary of key findings from the expedition.

The Problem

Plastic pollution in our land and aquatic environments is now recognized as one of the most pressing issues of our time. Over 8 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced since 1950, and production is projected to increase to 34 billion metric tons by 2050. Plastic pollution has become an issue that is global, visible, and harmful—but also solvable.

Kamlesh, 45, sorts through plastic bottles at a sorting facility in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand on June 21, 2019. Taken on assignment for National Geographic's "Sea to Source: Ganges" expedition. Through the expedition, the international, all-female team of scientists are working with National Geographic and international partners to scientifically document plastic waste in the Ganges watershed and support holistic and inclusive solutions. Photo by Sara Hylton.
Kamlesh, 45, sorts through plastic bottles at a sorting facility in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand on June 21, 2019. Taken on assignment for National Geographic’s “Sea to Source: Ganges” expedition. Photo by Sara Hylton.

The Solution

Eleven sampling sites were selected along the main stem of the Ganges, three in Bangladesh and eight in India. During the expedition, the team spent three days at each site and collected data and samples on the river, in cities and villages. They also interviewed more than 1,400 individuals, and participated in a number of municipal and community workshops to hear from locals in India and Bangladesh about plastic waste. Both Bangladesh and India have undertaken strong actions to combat plastic pollution, so community members had a lot of background information and expertise to offer. These conversations informed potential solutions, which can be found in the summary report. 

“We have no problem using alternatives to plastic such as paper and cloth, but the barrier is affordability and availability of the alternatives locally.”

-Participant from Patna community solutions workshop

In Rishikesh, Uttarakhand on June 20, 2019. Taken on assignment for National Geographic's "Sea to Source: Ganges" expedition. Through the expedition, the international, all-female team of scientists are working with National Geographic and international partners to scientifically document plastic waste in the Ganges watershed and support holistic and inclusive solutions. Photo by Sara Hylton
Expedition team member, Aditi Dev, interviews a community focus group. Taken on assignment for National Geographic’s “Sea to Source: Ganges” expedition. Photo by Sara Hylton.

Key Findings

The Sea to Source Expedition highlighted a general need for further research and monitoring, particularly for government-led schemes to provide robust data on plastic waste for the design and implementation of waste management strategies. Below are some of the team’s findings.

  • Across five cities where waste characterization was conducted in India, plastic in the waste stream ranged from 9-17%, made up of 70-80 percent of film plastic by mass.
  • An estimated 50 percent (Bangladesh) and 60 percent (India) of waste is managed outside formal waste collection structures, by community members and waste collectors that create an informal sector.
  • Significant quantities of waste are ending up in the environment near the Ganges. The most common litter items in Bangladesh were cigarettes and food wrappers; in India they were tobacco sachets and food wrappers.
  • An estimated 1 billion microplastics per day are discharged in the pre-monsoon and 3 billion per day in the post-monsoon season. Most microplastics recorded in Ganges River system water were microfibers compared with microplastics, which are likely to come from clothing.
  • Discarded fishing gear is likely a significant source of plastics in the Ganges that negatively impacts wildlife.
  • Low-income communities are more negatively impacted by single-use plastic.
  • There is a lack of access (because of either proximity or price) of rural communities to non-plastic alternatives.

For more information about the expedition, visit natgeo.org/plastics, and to find the published expedition outputs, visit jambeck.engr.uga.edu/sea-to-source.  

This research was conducted in partnership with the National Geographic Society, Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, the Isabela Foundation, University of Dhaka, the Wildlife Institute of India, and WildTeam Bangladesh, with approval from all relevant agencies of the Governments of India and Bangladesh.

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 our 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.