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“Sea to Source: Ganges” Dispatch: Intervention Strategies

Land, water, people, plastic. This is the story of National Geographic Society's female-led expedition team as they track & characterize plastics in the Ganges River using land-debris trackers, community surveys & water-air-sediment sampling. Written by Lillygol Sedaghat and edited by Cory Howell.

“I’d call it an intervention framework,” Jenna said between pretzels. “I don’t like the word ‘solution.’ I think we associate solutions with being the most correct answer.”

We were en route to a sampling site, crammed into a van munching salty-crunchy snacks, killing our 45-minute commute while towns and streets and waste piles blurred by outside. Seeing it all reminded me of why we were here, and I decided to pick Jenna’s brain while I could.

“It’s definitely much more of a framework,” she went on. “The most correct answers are up to people that have the context of a certain situation.”

Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.

That “framework” Jenna mentioned is her way of combating the plastic pollution issue. It’s a guide for everyone--from citizens to policymakers--to reduce our plastic waste. It boils to four main methods:

  1. Reducing Use of Materials
  2. Package Redesign
  3. Developing Waste Management Infrastructure
  4. Last Chance Capture

It’s all informed by her research paper featured in ScienceMagazine, which estimated the mass of land-based plastic waste entering the oceans.

“Interventions are required at every step in this framework,” she said. “From the most upstream to the most downstream.”

Reducing Use of Materials

“There’s no doubt that we need to reduce single-use items. Especially in places where our waste generation rates are very high, like the U.S.”

For a little context, Jenna’s paper ranked 192 coastal countries on their gross output of plastic waste to the ocean. China was number one, India number ten. The United States was in the top 20.

“The U.S. was in the top 20 in my paper because [with] so much waste, even a little bit of leakage is still a significant number.”

So, reducing our use of materials means we need to meet people’s needs without producing waste in the first place. We’ve seen it work; think reusable containers, ideas for alternative packaging, fewer short-use items, circular economy goals.

This all requires reframing our mindset--decoupling waste generation from economic growth.

Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.

Package Redesign

If you’ve got to use a package, why not design it to be more effectively recycled?

“The PET water bottle standard in Norway,” Jenna explained. “They only allow certain colors, they don’t allow certain additives or adhesives, and the caps have to be made out of particular polymers so that they can actually be recycled bottle to bottle.

“If we had standards and homogenization and the actual design of packaging for recycling, it would make things much easier to recycle.”

And this idea is important not just for ease of recycling and reuse, but because our packaging reflects the times.

“Waste is a characterization of what’s happening in our society,” said Jenna. “Our waste stream changes and it’s hard to recycle lots and lots of things.”

She cited the example of cassette-tape and CDs--waste that was driven by technology and media consumption of the times.

If we can get our packaging to accurately and efficiently meet our needs--even for something like music--we can reduce the amount that goes into our waste systems.

Develop Waste Management Infrastructure

Mismanaged waste generally comes from a lack of waste management infrastructure.

“If you don’t have collection of waste,” Jenna said, “how can you properly manage it?”

Many countries who have seen rapid economic growth haven’t developed the infrastructure to deal with their booming economy’s influx of products, packaging, and waste.

Better waste and recycling infrastructure will lead to less waste, and less plastic in our oceans.

It is important to recognize that many nations do have strong informal recycling sectors, where people make a living from other people’s throw-away goods.

“I’m really supportive of the social movement to include people working in the informal sector,” Jenna said. “If you come put in a system, you could put millions of people out of work, who are already working on this issue.” Things are complicated and need to be handled with care.

Last Chance Capture

Finally, there can be a stopgap measure to capture and collect the material before it makes it to the water.

“Some sort of final catchment, netting material,” Jenna said. “And then that material can be captured and hopefully if you have a management system you can manage it properly.”

In India, there are litter collection boats stations in various sections of the Ganges to pick out trash, and in the U.S. we have things like Mr. Trash Wheel.

It struck me as so practical we might sometimes forget--the waste is out there, we can just pick it up.

Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.

It’s a Framework

We approached our sampling site just as my legs started to grow restless. I was ready for our litter walk.

The van eased into an empty lot and a dust cloud rose around us. I could feel our conversation naturally reaching its end when Jenna turned and looked at me.

“I don’t feel comfortable going somewhere and saying ‘here’s what you should do.’ There may be things happening that we don’t see, so we’ve got to be very careful.”

She said it with a weight that landed and settled in my chest. I gave her a slow nod in return.

We opened the door and the heat and humidity blasted us, brought me back to the task at hand.

It’s a framework, I thought to myself, not a solution.

Post written by Lillygol Sedaghat and edited by Cory Howell.

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