Morgan Stanley
  • Institute for Sustainable Investing
  • Apr 21, 2020

Uncharted Waters: A Ganges River Expedition to Study Plastic Waste

In 2019, a female-led team of scientists traveled along the Ganges River in India and Bangladesh to partner with locals and collect data on plastic flow from land to waterways and the ocean.

“For Ganga. For science. Help the Ganga Guardians understand how trash flows down the river,” reads a biodegradable drift card made of eco-plywood. It's one of thousands released at sites in and along the Ganges River by an international female-led team of local and global scientists and engineers to engage communities in India and Bangladesh about how they can help prevent plastic waste from entering in the ocean.

It’s a resonant message for communities surrounding the Ganges—Ganga in Hindi—that depend on the river for everything from farming animals and crops, to using its water for their daily routines—and sometimes to take away waste. Rivers can be efficient ways to move debris into the sea, which is sometimes how they were historically used, but the input of waste has become a growing threat for the Ganges. By working hand-in-hand with communities to collect data, information can be gathered about the flow of plastic pollution from land into waterways and the ocean, according to University of Georgia Professor Jenna Jambeck.

Photo by Sara Hylton, National Geographic. The water team collects samples to test for microplastics along Varuna River, a tributary of the Ganges River in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh on Nov. 22, 2019. Through the expedition, the international, female-led 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.

Jambeck, an award-winning environmental engineer with more than 20 years of experience focusing on solid waste and marine debris issues, co-led an expedition to the Ganges last year for this purpose. The journey was a scientific trek as part of National Geographic’s Sea to Source project, which, in collaboration with local partners, helps to quantify the load, flow and composition of plastic entering waterways and engages communities in context-sensitive and inclusive solutions. Plastic serves a vital and hygienic resource in both life-saving and day-to-day applications, so the team worked with communities to identify potential alternatives to plastic products and sustainable disposal options.

The Ganges River Basin was well-suited as the location for the Sea to Source expedition. While it’s one of the most beautiful and iconic rivers in the world with diverse terrain, habitats and animals, Jambeck says, it’s also under stress as the most populated, with about 400 million people directly dependent on the river and its tributaries. A sacred and holy river to many, it’s known in India as the Ganga, in Bangladesh as the Padma and near its mouth as the Meghna. The river discharges 38,000 cubic meters per second of water and is ranked as one of the top 10 rivers for plastic inputs into the ocean.

The team used the Marine Debris Tracker, a mobile application introduced in 2011 that Jambeck co-developed, to collect data on plastic in the environment.

Jambeck and Heather Koldewey, the expedition’s co-lead, along with a team of international and local scientists and engineers, worked collaboratively to collect data on land in cities, in the river, along the riverbank and in villages and communities. During the expedition, the team used the Marine Debris Tracker, a mobile application introduced in 2011 that Jambeck co-developed, to collect data on plastic in the environment, logging more than 85,000 litter items.

The open-source and open-data application is available to anyone, and it was used by community members in each country to document another 34,000 items to contribute to the scientific team’s research. The app, powered through a partnership between Morgan Stanley, the National Geographic Society and University of Georgia’s College of Engineering, enables citizen scientists globally to crowdsource data and clean up litter.

“We can provide the technical support for data collection, but it’s important that a community leads as stakeholders on solutions,” Jambeck says. “We worked with local community leaders, as well as the Ganga Praharis, or Ganga Guardians—volunteers through the Wildlife Institute of India who want to conserve the Ganga River and have local knowledge to bring to the table, for solutions that are working, or will work, in their community.”

Photo by Sara Hylton, National Geographic. The leaders of the National Geographic ”Sea to Source: Ganges” expedition, Jenna Jambeck and Heather Koldewey, in Harsil, Uttarakhand on June 26, 2019. Through the expedition, the international, female-led team of scientists is working with National Geographic and international partners to scientifically document plastic waste in the Ganges watershed and support holistic and inclusive solutions.

Plastic Pollution in the Ganges: A Scientific Assessment

The National Geographic team traveled the full 1,600 miles of the main stem of the Ganges River twice during the 2019 expedition’s two phases, from May to early July and again in late October to December, to study the flow of plastic based on conditions before and after the region’s monsoon season.

The expedition took them from tropical terrains to industrial port towns in Bangladesh, where they lived on a houseboat, to rural communities as well as bustling cities in India, and to the mountainous Himalayas, where the river originates. The communities were selected based on existing research locations of the team’s partner institutions.

They interviewed kabadiwallas—local junk-shop owners who are part of the informal economy and play a critical role in the management of materials for recycling in India.

Part of the research expedition required the team to traverse randomly selected 100 meter long and one meter wide transects where every piece of litter was counted with the Marine Debris Tracker. It often took teams of 3-4 people 45 minutes to complete each transect with a total of 150 transects completed over the expedition, Jambeck says. The team would also note various potential influencing factors like the area’s waste management infrastructure and public spaces, as well as popular products sold in shops and how they were packaged. They also interviewed kabadiwallas—local junk-shop owners who are part of the informal economy and play a critical role in the management of materials for recycling in India—to understand what types of material were most valuable to them and how that affected the items making their way to the ground.

Photo by Sara Hylton, National Geographic. The land team in Uttarkashi, Uttarakhand on Dec. 10, 2019. Through the expedition, the international, female-led 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.

“The land-based method we used in each community was a circularity assessment protocol (CAP), a holistic method that takes a community approach to examining packaging as a complex system, from its input, citizen awareness, material selection, use, reuse, collection, management and leakage,” Jambeck says.

But the land work was just one component of the overall expedition. Koldewey led teams focused on water and socioeconomic factors, which worked with local partners to collect data on microplastic in the river, sediment and air and explored people's perceptions and barriers to change in the communities, as well as innovative local solutions.

Ganges Plastic Waste and Community Solutions

In-country collaborators on this work were integral to its success and included the University of Dhaka, WildTeam and the Isabela Foundation in Bangladesh; the Wildlife Institute of India, which trains the Ganga Prahari on biodiversity conservation; and the Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur. Local partners helped to host multiple workshops on data and solutions with communities along the expedition route. The workshops engaged participants in a discussion around plastic and packaging, their thoughts on litter and waste management, and their top concerns related to plastic pollution in their area and possible solutions.

The team also trained interested community members on how to use the Marine Debris Tracker mobile app. During the expedition, National Geographic, with support from Morgan Stanley, held a country-wide app challenge with local media partner Star India, which involved influencers, including Bollywood stars and athletes, generating a 20-fold increase in users and greater awareness about plastic waste.

Photo by Sara Hylton, National Geographic. The land team uses Marine Debris Tracker in Uttarkashi, Uttarakhand on Dec. 10, 2019. Through the expedition, the international, female-led 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.

The team met with government leaders, including officials from environment ministries, district magistrates and heads of cities and villages to hear their concerns and input on this issue. The team is now collaboratively analyzing data that will provide insight into interventions and solutions.

Jambeck talks about how data can be empowering to citizens: “In addition to their local knowledge, partners, communities and citizens will have additional data to describe their context to come up with locally appropriate actions that reduce plastic entering the environment and continue to protect this iconic waterway. The citizen participation and science through programs like the Ganga Prahari and Marine Debris Tracker show that collectively, anyone around the world can make a difference.”