Rivers Of Plastic Found Beneath Thames
January 8, 2014

River Of Plastic Found Beneath Thames

In a recent post here, I wrote about the terrible consequences of plastic pollution around the world. But recently published research has brought the problem much closer to home.

Scientists from Royal Holloway University and London’s Natural History Museum spent three months in 2012 searching seven areas along the Thames Estuary and collected whatever rubbish they could find. They discovered that there was a previously unknown “river of plastic” flowing downriver which had remained undiscovered as it was near the bed of the river.

They finished up with nearly nine thousand items of garbage. These included many items of plastic which the researchers believe found their way into the river either by being thrown or blown into drains or directly flushed down toilets. Over 20 percent of the items found were sanitary products of some kind. The rest consisted of things like cigarette packaging, food wrappers and plastic cups. Some of the most contaminated areas were in close proximity to sewerage treatment plants. This raises concerns that plastic items are not being extracted duration waste filtration or that the plants had perhaps allowed sewerage to flow out untreated when flooding occurred. The nets they used would only trap part of any plastic garbage. Larger plastic bags, for example, would not get caught. So the problem they uncovered could actually be much worse than the research itself indicates.

Previous estimates of the amount of plastic waste have been based on visible items floating on the surface and on those washed up on shore-lines. The new research indicates that these estimates have been too low and that therefore environmental impacts have been miscalculated.

The findings came about by accident. The scientists had been studying ways to control Chinese Mitten crabs – an invasive and unwelcome species – by using different types of “Fyke Nets” to catch the crabs while allowing native animals to escape. But the nets were constantly trapping copious amounts of plastic and they decided further investigation was needed.

The implications for wildlife and the Thames ecosystem are obvious. The Thames estuary is home to many species of birds and fish. Long term attempts to re-introduce salmon to the river have met with some success. Larger animals such as Grey Seals are also present in the lower areas. The Thames and the areas alongside are an important recreational area for Londoners and the other towns and cities nearby. So, locally, it is hoped that spreading news of the new findings will raise awareness of the problem. But, as the researchers point out, the plastic pollution will continue to move downriver and spread into the North Sea and beyond adding to the growing dangers to the marine environment in general.

The Natural History Museum is running a “Thames Plastic Awareness Weekend” on January 4th and 5th in an attempt to bring home, not just to Londoners but to all visitors, just how much of an issue this is. Entrance will be free. The hope is that those who visit the event will be persuaded to re-evaluate how they and others dispose of plastic waste. Changing consumer behaviour, however, is just one part of seeking a solution to this global pollution crisis.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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Eric Hopton is a writer, musician, artist, and photographer. He has a degree in Social Anthropology and has always been passionate about travel, having so far visited 73 countries. His music and sound work has been used in many projects around the world and can be heard on Bandcamp and Freesound, where he has contributed over 1,300 sounds under his sonic alter ego, ERH.

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