Sea change in the Ganges

By empowering and engaging communities, Renew Ganga aims to reduce plastic waste in India’s most sacred river and the world’s ocean.

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The Ganges river is one of the longest rivers in the world, home to urban communities of 120 million people. Around 1.2 billion pounds of plastic enter the Ganges river every year, part of which flows out to the sea

Flowing 1,560 miles from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges River, locally known as Ganga, is one of the world’s greatest, longest, and most polluted waterways in the world. On its journey from the mountains to the sea, the sacred river—considered by Hindus to be the personification of the goddess Ganga—collects untreated sewage, trash, and an estimated 1.2 billion pounds of discarded soft and hard plastic each year. The staggering pollution earns the Ganges the dubious honor of being among ten rivers in Asia and Africa that transport 93 percent of the river-based plastics deposited into Earth’s ocean.

Stemming the Ganges’s Himalaya-sized tide of plastic waste to prevent it from reaching the ocean may seem impossible, but that’s precisely the goal of Renew Ganga, launched in April, 2019. Focused on helping river-adjacent communities build waste infrastructure to keep plastic out of the water, Renew Ganga is the inaugural project of Renew Oceans and is sponsored by the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. The Alliance is contributing funding, materials, logistics capabilities, and technical expertise to the project, which aims to divert 100,000 pounds of plastic waste from the Ganges in 2019 and one million pounds in 2020.

Renew Ganga is one of the many programs being developed and funded by the Alliance, a non-profit established in January, 2019, by a group of nearly 40 global companies that make, use, and recycle plastics. Over the next five years, the Alliance intends to invest $1.5 billion to develop, accelerate, and deploy solutions; catalyze investment; and engage communities to create long-term solutions to the world’s plastic waste problem.

Each Alliance partnership will test the viability of an idea to determine whether it can be turned into a reality and applied to other regions, cities, and towns. Initial grants are being awarded to organizations, such as Renew Oceans, whose work focuses on places that are home to some of the most significant sources of unmanaged plastic waste.

The Renew Ganga project is based in Varanasi, one of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism and one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world. Located in India’s northern Uttar Pradesh state, the city sits at the confluence of two tributaries of the Ganges. Choosing to base Renew Ganga there is both symbolic and strategic, says Renew Oceans founder and CEO, Priyanka Bakaya, who was born in India and raised in Australia, and whose grandparents’ ashes were spread in the Ganges at Varanasi.

She explains that Renew Ganga embodies the “spiritual metaphor of rebirth” of Varanasi. More than a million Hindu pilgrims flock to the city—home to 23,000 temples—each year. They bathe in the river and receive absolution from “Mother Ganga” by performing sacred rites to purify the soul. The ritual bathing often involves devotees placing plastic bags filled with small offerings into the river. In addition to the potentially million or more offering bags deposited in the Ganges, every day plastic waste carried by the tributaries—the Varuna River and the former Assi River, now a storm water drainage, or nala—flows into the river from inland communities, where the lack of waste collection and recycling infrastructure means monsoon rains regularly sweep plastic waste into the water.

To begin to address the underlying causes of the plastic pollution in the Ganges, Renew Ganga is concentrating on plastic waste transported by the Assi Nala, which is so thick with trash that it is almost impossible to see water. The Renew Ganga model is dubbed “The 3 C’s”—collection, conversion, and community. The approach involves manual cleanup efforts and the installation of physical barriers (Renew Oceans’ prototype ReFence) to collect and divert soft and hard plastic waste on land and in the water; converting that waste into marketable and revenue-generating recycled materials; and motivating the community to keep their rivers clean by educating, engaging, and empowering local residents.

A key component of the community focus is piloting a concept to improve the health, safety, and economic outcomes of Varanasi’s waste pickers, the informal waste collectors who reclaim recyclables from the city’s mixed waste trash piles. India’s waste pickers primarily are economically disadvantaged and socially marginalized women. Throughout the Renew Ganga pilot program, Bakaya will be closely tracking the health and economic outcomes of 10 of these women to help craft a scalable program that can help improve the lives and efficacy of waste pickers. As in all river-adjacent communities lacking waste management and collection infrastructure, empowering waste pickers to do their job more efficiently and effectively is essential for keeping plastic out of the ocean.

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In order to help reduce ocean plastics, Renew Oceans aims to collect and convert plastics, while empowering and engaging the community along the Ganges River.

In fall 2019, Renew Ganga also plans to launch its prototype “Plastics Muncher,” a reverse vending machine for plastics, on the campus of Varanasi’s Banaras Hindu University, or BHU. Instead of tossing plastics in the trash, BHU students will be able to “feed” hard and soft plastics into the muncher to help make the world a more sustainable place and to earn rewards.

All of the lessons learned through Renew Ganga will be used to mold a high-impact, economically viable, and scalable model that can be replicated in other sections of the Ganges and in the other top-polluting rivers, meaning that this partnership between the Alliance to End Plastic Waste and Renew Oceans ultimately could stop the flow of plastic into the planet’s ocean.

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