Photographs by Sara Hylton
Text by Laura Parker
Ridding the Ganges of thousands of tons of plastic trash is a complex puzzle. India is starting to put the pieces together.
In the past decade, as the world has awakened to the growing accumulation of plastic debris in our oceans, the efforts to solve the mounting crisis have been numerous, imaginative—and insufficient. By 2040, the amount of plastic flowing annually into the sea is forecast nearly to triple, to 32 million tons a year. That means by the time a baby born this year graduates from high school, there will be, on average, a hundred pounds of plastic trash for every yard of coastline around the globe.
The message from scientists is, it’s not too late to fix it. But it’s past time for small steps.
In 2019 the National Geographic Society sponsored a research expedition to the Ganges, which flows across northern India and Bangladesh, through one of the largest and most heavily populated river basins in the world. A team of 40 scientists, engineers, and support staff from India, Bangladesh, the United States, and the United Kingdom traveled the full length of the river twice, before and after the monsoon rains that dramatically swell it. Sampling the river and the land and air around it, and interviewing more than 1,400 residents, the team sought to find out where, why, and what kind of plastic was getting into the Ganges—and from there into the Indian Ocean.