A polluted tributary leading to the Ganga, Allahabad (Photo: Getty Images)
JENNA JAMBECK GREW up in ‘very rural Minnesota’. From a young age, the journey of solid waste intrigued her. What is the destination of the plastic bottle that you buy and discard without a moment’s hesitation? How do our daily choices of purchases and products affect the planet? Who are the people who have to deal with trash in the most hostile of conditions? What is the ‘human component’ of the solid waste that we see around us? Growing up in the UK, Heather J Koldewey always loved animals and oceans. As a child, she enjoyed “exploring rocky shores and looking for the variety of crabs, anemones, fish and seaweeds that live in rockpools”. A childhood in nature ensnared her appreciation for nature, wildlife and the environment. Initially she wanted to be a vet, but her passions led her to work in community-based marine conservation. Today, Jambeck is an explorer, Associate Professor and Director at the University of Georgia, US. She has been conducting research on solid waste issues for over 20 years and on related projects on marine debris since 2001. Today, Koldewey is a Senior Technical Advisor to the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). Together, they are the scientific co-leads of National Geographic’s ‘Source to Sea’ Plastic Initiative. As National Geographic fellows, they are working to better understand the ‘impact and scope of plastic pollution in our waterways through scientific research and exploration’.
They recently concluded a two-month long expedition spanning 2,575 km of the Ganga along with a team of scientists and engineers. They traversed upstream from the Bay of Bengal to the river’s source in the Himalayas. The ‘Sea to Source: Ganges’ expedition is the second phase of National Geographic’s expedition up the Ganga, in Bangladesh and India. Their mission was to track plastic pollution in the river following the monsoons.
“Ocean plastic pollution is a global crisis. Every year, about 9 million metric tonnes of plastic are added, with rivers acting as major conveyor belts that move plastic debris into the ocean,” says Koldewey, adding, “Our focus on this expedition is to understand how people and plastic connect with the Ganga river and ultimately the ocean, using our data to raise awareness and identify solutions.”
We caught up with them on email towards the end of their journey in Uttarkashi, in the Himalayas. The Ganga, still pristine and bubbling from the glaciers, reminded Jambeck of the rivers in Minnesota, US, where she grew up. But unlike the flat plains of Minnesota, here she could revel in views of the majestic Himalayas donned in the colours of the sun.
Their expedition has taken them on planes, trains, buses, cars, rickshaws and boats. In Bangladesh, they lived on a boat (not a sailboat, as they had to voyage up-river) and were able to travel to each site on the river itself. In India, they had to be more innovative. To sample the river and interact with communities around it, they had to go overland as the barrages on the river obstructed longer boat journeys. However, the water team would embark on a small inflatable boat in each location and then travel up and down the river to sample water and sediment.
The first phase of the river expedition took place in May-July 2019. The team conducted nine community workshops on solutions to plastic waste, interviewed more than 250 individuals about their perceptions and use of plastic, took more than 300 environmental samples and documented more than 56,000 pieces of debris using the Marine Debris Tracker app.
On land and in the communities, they use an open-source, open-data mobile app called the Marine Debris Tracker, as a data collection tool. In this phase, they have logged more than 90,000 pieces of litter and some of the top items are tobacco sachets and food wrappers. The packaging these items come in has no value after use and is often discarded in the open environment. The website (www.marinedebris.engr.uga.edu/) records the plastic debris that litters our environment and which has been identified and collected by volunteers. The culprits, not surprisingly, include everything from cigarette butts to plastic bags to toothbrushes.
The team has noticed higher levels of plastic pollution as population increases, but they can also “see plastic aggregating on the river and associated tributaries in rural areas”. They have also observed the direct impacts of plastic pollution from fishing activities, such as broken and discarded plastic fishing nets, ropes and floats.
In the first phase, they also sampled air in connection with each water sampling site to look at microplastics. The entire expedition was four months in total, split into pre and post-monsoon phases. They say, “It has been an extraordinary experience, as well as a bit surreal.” With most of the team being women, they also used this as an opportunity to highlight the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
In 2014, Jambeck sailed across the Atlantic Ocean with 13 other women to sample land and open-ocean plastic and encourage women to enter STEM disciplines. Her work on the Ganga has been different from that voyage as a significant portion of their work on the Ganga was land-based. (In 2014, they mapped what was ending up in the open oceans.) She says, “We now know that a lot of the waste we see ending up in our waterways comes from land, so travelling closer to land, and then upstream into a river, like the artery of the ocean, is a logical next step. Much of my work is based on land, but we have similar missions to protect the ocean and promote women in under-represented disciplines.”
The research has been hard on mind and body. There were days when the challenges seemed too big to surmount, how is one to tackle an issue like plastic waste which requires changes in personal consumption and policy changes at the level of governments and corporates. Physically, the research was ‘hard and far from glamorous’. On thier blog, they write, it required ‘squelching through toxic dumpsites, armpit deep in muddy, stinky river sediment, painstakingly counting and categorising multiple pieces of plastic, and patiently and respectfully asking the same questions to different people day in day out.’
Beyond data collection, the team also conducted workshops in schools and with communities. Koldewey writes that seeing the youth pledge to use more sustainable alternatives to plastic was a rewarding experience, as was working on solutions with the community.
As the Ganga is one of the most iconic waterways in the world, which supports more than 600 million people, the team had to work with various communities through the expedition. The land team often had to work in urban environments, and in cities like Patna, Varanasi and Rishikesh. In many places, Jambeck and Koldewey observed India’s informal waste segregation methods. Jambeck says, “I have been most impacted by the informal waste community working every day to manage a large fraction of the waste [through recycling] in these cities. The waste pickers, collectors and kabadiwallahs play such a critical role in the current management of materials in India, it is important we understand how potential solutions would not only impact them, but how to be inclusive of them moving forward.”
THE TEAM’S RESEARCH work also focused on understanding the attitudes and perceptions of those who live and work by the rivers, such as the fishing community. In their interactions with these people they found that they faced various challenges, from losing their lands and homes during the monsoons, to the threat to their livelihoods from depleted fisheries. These interactions proved crucial as these are the people who often face the brunt of plastic and other pollutions, even if they are not the leading consumers of it.
For the team, involving the community in the research is a crucial step for attempting to find solutions. When it comes to plastic pollution, they both agree: “It’s a global issue with many localised solutions—with communities often on the front lines.”
While their own upbringing might have been in landscapes that are vastly different from India, they have had their own epiphanies and moments of recognition. Jambeck grew up in a cabin about 14.5 km outside of a town of about 2,000 people. But she says, “What I found so wonderful on this expedition were actually the similarities to where I grew up. In Kannauj, in June, we were working alongside sweeping cornfields—they looked just like the road out of my town to my home where I grew up. And as we neared the top of the Ganges, the running water and rapids sounded just like the river directly in front of my childhood home. The river holds great significance in my life and I have travelled down it hundreds of times to the mouth of the next river, and I know it like the back of my hand. My childhood home is rooted in our appreciation for this river as well, so that is something I understand.”
Back home, on February 5th, they both blogged about their experiences and return. Sitting on her favourite rock at the creek by her house with her son, Jambeck compared the creek with the Ganga. She writes, ‘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.’ Mother and son float sticks down the water and watch as they bob and bobble down the creek. Here it is a stick, in the Ganga it is plastic, but it is the journey and the questions around it that engage her.
Back home and by the sea in Cornwall, UK, Koldewey heads out for a stroll along the beach with her family and her dog, Indi. As they walk and talk she picks up ‘the inevitable plastic items that litter our beautiful shoreline—bits of fishing nets, bottle caps and food wrappers’. These are similar items which they documented with their team on the ‘Sea to Source’ expedition, making her realise once again that ‘plastic is truly a global issue that will require a global effort to find solutions and solve the problem.’
As scientists studying pollution and the planet, do they ever find themselves dispirited, I ask. Where do they find hope? Jambeck says, “I find hope in the people I meet around the world working on this issue. I am inspired by the kids asking questions in the schools, by the citizens coming up with grassroots solutions, and very much by the millions of people working to manage waste in India and around the world in the informal sector.” She adds that one can make a difference right now by signing up for the National Geographic Society’s ‘Planet or Plastic’ pledge, which more than 321 million people have already taken.
Koldewey adds, “I’m an optimist by nature and find hope in focusing on where and how I can make a difference, as it can be overwhelming and easy to feel helpless if you look at every global environmental problem at once.” While acknowledging that plastic pollution is a major environmental issue, she also believes it is solvable, as long as there is awareness and commitment across countries and sectors. She says, “This expedition is the perfect example of where the sum is greater than the parts—by bringing together people from different disciplines, we can work together to find solutions.”