University scientists participate in plastic pollution expedition to India

India plastics expedition - Imogen Napper is front row, fourth from left. Credit: Bhumesh Bharti

Scientists from the University of Plymouth are taking part in an all-female expedition studying plastic pollution in one of the world’s most iconic waterways.

The Sea to Source: Ganges river expedition is part of a drive by National Geographic to better understand and document how plastic waste travels from source to sea.

It aims to fill critical knowledge gaps around plastic flow, load and composition and offers an unprecedented opportunity to scientifically document plastic waste and develop holistic and inclusive solutions.

A team of 15 scientists and engineers will take part in the expedition and they will include Imogen Napper, a Research Fellow with the University’s International Marine Litter Research Unit.

She received an award from Sky Ocean Rescue and National Geographic in April 2018, enabling her to explore the most effective new technologies to prevent microfibers from washing clothes entering the marine environment.

Imogen, who recently completed her PhD examining the sources and fates of microplastic, said:

“I am thrilled to have been selected for the expedition. To date, my research has focused on how specific sources of plastic enter the marine environment. However, as most plastic litter originates on land, I am now excited to help fill in the knowledge gaps of how rivers contribute. By working with local communities and partners in India, this expedition aims to provide actionable information to stem the flow of plastic entering the Ganges.”

Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit, will also offer expert guidance to the expedition. He added

“I am delighted to bring our expertise to help support this project. Understanding and evidencing the role of rivers as pathways for litter to the oceans is of critical importance in helping inform interventions to help reduce plastic pollution in the environment.”

The scientists will be co-led by National Geographic Fellows Jenna Jambeck and Heather Koldewey – working in partnership with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), the University of Dhaka and WildTeam and will focus on plastic pollution in three key areas: land, water and people.

  • The team working on the land will collect data about the input and use of plastic in communities, study how waste is collected and managed, and will quantify the movement and type of plastic in the environment;
  • The water team – which will include Imogen – will study plastic pollution in the air, water, sediment and species in and around the river;
  • The socioeconomic team will survey local communities along the expedition route to better understand awareness and perceptions of plastic pollution, household plastic waste management, and local solutions for addressing this issue.

During the expeditions, the team will work with local stakeholders to translate their scientific findings using storytelling to raise awareness about plastic pollution and drive behaviour change.

This is the first of several international river expeditions planned as part of National Geographic’s Planet or Plastic? initiative, which aims to significantly reduce the amount of single-use plastic that reaches the ocean. The same team plans to replicate the expedition after the monsoon season to capture seasonal variation.

Valerie Craig, vice president of operating programs at the National Geographic Society, said: 

“National Geographic is deeply committed to advancing solutions to the plastic waste crisis and preventing plastic from ending up in our ocean. These expeditions are a tremendous opportunity to mobilize a global community of experts to help tackle the problem. The more we understand about how plastic moves through our waterways, the more effective we will be at preventing plastic waste from entering the marine environment.”

International Marine Litter Research Unit

Marine litter is a global environmental problem with items of debris now contaminating habitats from the poles to the equator, from the sea surface to the deep sea.

Furthering our understanding of litter on the environment and defining solutions

Find out more about the International Marine Litter Research Unit

Researching plastic pollution within the marine environment

Dr Imogen Napper spent her PhD working with Professor Richard Thompson in the University’s International Marine Litter Research Unit.

Imogen was awarded a prestigious scholarship to advance her research into microplastics found in the marine environment.

Learn more about Imogen and her work to #EndPlasticSoup