As part of National Geographic’s ‘Planet or Plastic?’ initiative, “Source to Sea” plastic was announced at the start of the year 2019. First of the several upcoming international river expeditions as part of ‘Sea to Source’ expeditions to combat the plastic waste crisis, the “Sea to Source: Ganges” was launched with the aim to reduce the quantity of single-use plastic reaching the ocean. The expedition mobilised a global community of experts to help tackle plastic pollution by providing science-based, actionable information to build capacity for local solutions. Partnering with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), the University of Dhaka and WildTeam, the all-female team of 15 embarked on the first phase of their journey to the world’s most iconic waterways, the Ganges river, in May-June, 2019. During the course of the expedition, the team successfully documented the travel of plastic waste to educate about plastic flow, load, and composition and to develop holistic solutions.
Primarily, the focus of plastic pollution was on land, water and people; teams were formed and assigned tasks on the basis of the same. Them being:
- Land – Data collection on application of plastic in communities, waste management and collection, and quantification of the movement and type of plastic in the environment
- Water – Studying plastic pollution in the air, water, sediment and species in and around the river
- Socioeconomic – Conduction of surveys in local communities to understand better the perceptions of plastic pollution, household plastic waste management and local solutions for addressing this issue. Furthermore, raising awareness about plastic pollution and bringing about behavioural change through storytelling.
The key highlights of the first phase were:
- Organisation of nine community workshops on plastic waste solutions
- More than 250 individuals were interviewed about their usage and perceptions of plastic
- Collection of more than 300 environmental samples
- 56,000+ pieces of debris were documented using the Marine Debris Tracker app.
- 3,000 biodegradable wooden ‘drift cards’ and 10 plastic ‘bottle tags’ were released to track the movement of plastic waste using community engagement on land and in waterways.
After completing the first round of their expedition in June, the team returned after the monsoon season, to track seasonal variations in mapping plastic pollution in the air, water, land and aquatic species. Phase two focused on identifying and recommending solutions to tackle the global plastic crisis. They went on to understand the movement and accumulation of microplastic, if and how plastic is sinking, alongside using cutting-edge drone imagery and recording fishing related debris on the riverbank. Circularity Assessment Protocol (CAP), a framework developed at the University of Georgia New Materials Institute, had seven spokes- input, consumers, product design, use, collection, end of cycle, and leakage- through which information was collected by interviewing, social media analytics, documenting dumpsites, conducting surveys, recording litter along transects using the Marine Debris Tracker app, and many more ways to investigate a spectrum of influencing factors of plastic pollution. Using the data they collected, the team worked with local and national partners to inform solutions, fill knowledge gaps, and help drive a long-term positive change through conducting citizen science workshops, 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 the sites.
With the hope to empower others, the interdisciplinary expedition, proved to be novel in every aspect. Sharing its experiences all along the journey, they inspired and continue to inspire people to great lengths.