Can India clean up its holiest river? It will take a village.

Ridding the Ganges of thousands of tons of plastic trash is a complex puzzle. India is starting to put the pieces together.

Two rivers, the Bhagirathi and the Alaknanda, converge in the western Himalaya to form the Ganges, at the Indian town of Devaprayag—Sanskrit for “holy confluence.” The amount of plastic waste flowing out of the Ganges is estimated at more than 6,000 tons a year.

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.

Most of the research about plastic waste has focused on plastic already in the oceans and its potential for harm—it poses a lethal threat to a wide range of wildlife, from plankton on up to fish, turtles, and whales. Less is known about how the waste gets to the ocean. But it’s clear that rivers, especially rivers in Asia, are major arteries.

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