Ganga basin covers nearly 40% of India, has big role in carrying trash from source to sea: Heather Koldewey

Abhimanyu Chakravorty
Heather Koldewey, National Geographic Fellow and Scientific Co-Lead of the “Sea to Source: Ganges” expedition, in India. (Picture credit: Taylor Maddalene)

Plastic pollution is a clear and present danger, evidence of which is well documented. From the deepest ocean trench in the world to the air we breathe, plastic is omnipresent. While it has revolutionised every aspect of our daily lives and adapted well to the needs of industries, notably healthcare, it’s not only an enormous waste management challenge to cope with, but also a rapidly escalating humanitarian and environmental crisis. “Which is why we are using #ChooseThePlanet and hope that this will be an easy choice to make, but it requires us to rethink our lives,” says National Geographic fellow and marine biologist Heather Koldewey.

Koldewey was in the national capital recently to discuss National Geographic’s global initiative ‘Planet or Plastic?’, urging people to make an informed choice and choose the planet over plastic.

In an interview with the indianexpress.com, she speaks at length about the scope and impact of plastic pollution in our waterways, while offering simple alternatives to be part of the change.

Q. Plastic is a miracle material that has saved lives and revolutionised industries. But once it’s thrown away after use, it continues to persist in our environment for years. Not enough thought has gone behind how to manage plastic trash. What’s the problem here?

A. Single-use plastic is the crazy end of how we use plastic. It lasts for hundreds of years and we use it for a few seconds before throwing it away. Globally, only 9 per cent is recycled, about 12 per cent is incinerated and almost 80 per cent is ending up in oceans and landfills. That has led us to think about how we solve this problem. One is through behaviour change. The priority has to be to reduce single-use plastic consumption. We aren’t asking everybody to go plastic-free today. We know that some things are a lot easier to solve and some choices are harder to make than others. But we know there is huge power in the power of one and taking the first step today and not postponing this decision. The process of signing up to the pledge #ChooseThePlanet will make you think through your life.

Q. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has declared that India will be single-use plastic-free by 2022. That’s a huge commitment.

A. What PM Modi declared to the world is one of the most ambitious global targets any country has made and that’s amazing to see. We would like people to take the pledge to help India achieve the target. Next step is how we do that. Our #ChooseThePlanet platform is helping people on that journey. India is particularly interesting because single-use plastics haven’t been around for, let’s say, more than 25 years. This means anybody over the age of 30 remembers a different system that was in place then. This will also be a good time to look at how some of those practices can be re-energised and shift the perception of single-use plastic as being modern, easy and cool.

In pic: These plastic bottles might be comfortable for a moment but proving to be disastrous for the generations to come, at a junkyard on the outskirts of Chandigarh. (Express photo by Jasbir Malhi)

Q. What are some specific challenges for India in this context?

A. In India, plastic and poverty have a strong linkage often where there is poor waste infrastructure and where more products that come in plastic that can’t be recycled. Like shampoo, sachets are something that gives people access. It’s not the case of wanting to deny people those products, but let’s rethink how those are supplied. The Philippines, where I have worked extensively, has a women self-help group which has made a small business where they buy bulk shampoo and then consumers bring small jar to refill and that’s a different way of setting up a system that moves away from single-use plastics. Bulk shampoo, as opposed to sachets, is cost-effective in the long run. But the problem is access. It’s about changing the economics and bringing the benefit to the community and still giving them access to products.

Q. The global conversation around plastic pollution has only picked up in the last 4-5 years, although this is a much older problem. Is this a waste management issue or should it be stopped at source?

A. Both source and improper waste management are challenges. Nearly 40 per cent of the plastic produced every year globally is single-use plastics. Then we are generating waste from this 40 per cent that we can’t cope with. It’s about demonising plastic at all, it’s thinking about how we use it.

The reason why plastic pollution has got so much attention in recent times because science has shown the scale of the problem. Every single place that any marine scientist has ever looked, whether remote, deep, far, they have found plastic everywhere. Coping with and managing waste is a really big problem. And an expensive one. So when we look at the economic challenges of thinking about the system, we also have to look at the economic challenges that countries at a local and national level are facing at managing the waste, let alone the impact on resources such as wildlife, the environmental health of the environment.

In the UK, for instance, every adult drinks about 175 single-use plastic bottles every year. That’s around 1 billion waste bottles every year in London. That too in a city with healthy water readily coming from our taps. It has just become a behavioural thing. So it’s not only about the changes you can make, but how many people you can influence.

Heather Koldewey, National Geographic Fellow and Scientific Co-Lead of the “Sea to Source: Ganges” expedition, in India.

Q. You are part of the all-female team of scientists working on Sea to Source project on the Ganges to document how plastic waste travels from source to sea. Tell us a little about your journey.

A. The objectives are to provide the scientific data and evidence that support decision making to see where those key intervention points are to make a difference. We look at the main plastic items polluting the extraordinary and biodiversity-rich Gangetic ecosystem. For instance, food packaging is the most common form of litter and we have scientific data to show that. So if this is one of the biggest items littering the riverbanks, towns, cities and villages along the Ganga, how can we go about changing that? What’s special is that we’re looking across the river shelf. And tracking the levels of plastic in the river, sediment and air. We now know plastic fibres float in the air, so we are also breathing in plastic and understanding that better and how it’s impacting wildlife. We have been mapping and looking on land the waste management infrastructure that exists near the Ganges and the kind of litter that’s out there, but also community perceptions. People know the problem, most small villages can only really get many items in plastic now which they didn’t before. They don’t necessarily want it because then they need to manage the waste that they can’t, so there’s a shift in thinking about that system.

Q. Rivers transport trash from the source (land) to streams and finally to the oceans. What’s the contribution of rivers to the plastic pollution problem in our oceans in the context of Ganga?

A. It’s significant. Having travelled the length of Ganga river, you can see there are dams, tributaries and it’s a very dynamic system and the entire Ganga watershed covers around 40 per cent of India. It’s an enormous river system and we are really just looking at a rapid assessment and scientific methodology that can give us better insights than the current data. The current data is based on population and waste management infrastructure and then it made estimates of how much plastic is coming from rivers, so it is a significant part of the contribution coming from land into oceans. The Ganges is also one of the rivers in the world that have been highlighted as being a matter of concern. I think the groundswell of community action combined with a national commitment sets up to plug those scientific knowledge gaps and help facilitate change through this expedition.

Q. What are some solutions and interventions for this plastic pollution problem?

A. Individual reduction has to be the priority. Second, is managing waste. We need to recycle whatever we can once it becomes waste, so that means segregating our waste and provide the recycling streams with those opportunities. A lot of businesses are looking for recycled plastic. They will buy that plastic so it feeds into recycling chains so it doesn’t get lost and do anybody any, certainly not the environment. We need to see business innovation and rethink the system. How can it be done with less plastic and how can it be completely different and move away from SUPs altogether. Number of business, small to large, are already acting on that, but obviously the reduction depends on human behaviour first. The positive side of plastic from a business aspect is that there are other ways of doing business that is just as economically viable and successful if not more so than current ways. For example, old-style businesses in the UK are making a comeback. Our milk was always delivered in glass bottles by milkman before. Now that has been revived. It was dying because people go to supermarkets and buy milk in plastic bottles. But the traditional way is much more effective as it connects local farmers to local communities and cuts down transport supply chain thereby reducing our carbon footprint, plastic consumption and there are lots to love about this distribution and delivery system. There are some good solid business models that can be given a boost through rethinking.