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New River Thames Pollution Data Finds Majority is Single-Use Plastic 

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Volunteers collecting waste at low tide along the Thames (Photo: Daniel Lange/Shutterstock.com)

Over 60 per cent of litter would disappear from the River Thames basin if we moved away from single-use items, according to a report from the Marine Conservation Society.

A series of river cleanup events held along the Thames and its tributaries has revealed that more than 80 per cent of litter found in the Thames, and 78 per cent on its tributaries, was made up of single-use items such as metal drink cans, food packaging and plastic drinks bottles. 

The events were run by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) and waterways charity Thames 21 as part of the Waitrose & Partners/MCS beach and river clean programme. Analysis of the data provided a snapshot of the pathway the litter takes from its source to the sea, and also how it breaks down over time. The report also details how the type of pollution varies depending on location along the river. Metal drinks cans were commonly found on the tributaries, but much fewer were found on the Thames foreshore. Wet wipes were found in huge numbers on the Thames foreshore, while glass and unrecognisable plastic litter dominated the estuary cleans. The concentration of litter items found per 100m rose as the Thames made its way towards the sea, due to the increased opportunity for humans to influence the ecosystem. 

Thames21 ran 20 river clean events towards the end of 2017 and into 2018 at Thames tributaries and tidal Thames sites. The evidence was compared to MCS beach litter data from four beach cleans  held at Southend-on-Sea, where the River Thames meets the sea.

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Build up of plastic bottles and other litter along the banks of the Thames (Photo: Claire Newport/Shutterstock)

Sixteen events took place at Thames tributaries including the river Lea in Hackney, the Bear Brook in Aylesbury, and the river Brent in Neasden. On the tributaries, volunteers found that 78 per cent of the items they picked up were single-use with an average of 219 pieces of rubbish collected for every 100m surveyed. The four events on the Thames Foreshore found that 86 per cent of the litter items recorded were single-use with a higher concentration of items found - an average of 1,402 per every 100m surveyed. 

At Southend-on-Sea, just under half of all items found (48 per cent) were recognisably single use, but the concentration of small pieces of litter increased further, with a huge 2,520 items per every 100m surveyed.  Of those 2,520 items, 560 (28 per cent) were unrecognisable, small plastic items. The urgent problem of wet wipes, which often contain plastic, was also revealed in the report – making up 77 per cent of all items removed on the tidal Thames foreshore, and an average of 1,000 items at four beach clean events that were held as part of the project. 

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The original source of some of the plastic litter could not be identified (Photo: Shutterstock)

Lauren Eyles, MCS Beachwatch Manager, said that the proportion of single-use plastic was harder to measure at estuary and coastal sites as the plastic had already broken down. 'We find much more unidentified, tiny plastic at these sites because the plastic has been floating around for some time,' said Ms Eyles. 'However, they may well have once been single-use. Beach cleaners are far more likely to find microplastics these days than larger identifiable items.'

Both MCS and Thames21 are calling for a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) which has been shown to cut not just plastic pollution but from other materials too such as metal and glass. ‘These findings clearly show that we urgently need a Deposit Return Scheme, as well as alternatives to single-use,’ said Debbie Leach, CEO of Thames21. ‘Eighty per cent of the waste we found on the Thames foreshore, and nearly the same amount on the tributaries, would disappear if we moved away from single-use items, and one way to do this is through a DRS.’ 

Lauren Eyles says the data from these cleans will give the charity a more complete picture of the source to sea journey of litter: 'Rivers are being harmed by a variety of different pollutants, including large amounts of plastic. Eighty per cent of ocean litter comes from land, channelled there by our rivers.'

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