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  • Writer's pictureWatlington Climate Action Group

The Watlington Plasticblitz collects litter – and vital pollution data

The Watlington Plasticblitz collects litter – and vital pollution data

Joint WCAG/WEG plastic litter picking helps our rivers and the rubbish retrieved can help us all understand the scale of the problem, says Lucy Irvine

Plastic pollution in our rivers is a serious and growing problem. Plastic waste threatens wildlife through ingestion and entanglement and slowly breaks down into tiny plastic fragments known as microplastics which can work their way into the food chain.

Once plastic enters our rivers, there is no statutory obligation for any organisation or public body to remove it. This has resulted in plastic waste being allowed to accumulate in our rivers where it can then be carried out to sea. Shockingly, 80% of plastic pollution found in the sea has passed through rivers and streams on its way there.

This September, the Watlington Climate Action Group and Watlington Environment Group ran an event which focused on a clean-up of the streams in Watlington. In doing so, we contributed to a wider series of events happening across the Thames and its tributaries run by Thames 21 called ‘Plasticblitz’.

The project involved collecting data on the litter found and reporting the findings to Thames21 to build an evidence base on the extent to which plastic is threatening our rivers. The event also coincided with the River Thame Conservation Trust’s Rivers Week.

This worthwhile event saw 15 local volunteers take part and retrieve around 550 pieces of litter in and around the streams. Plastic litter accounted for 80%. Some of the most common types of litter were small pieces of plastic/polystyrene (182), drinks bottles (36), bagged dog faeces (31), plastic packaging (25) and sweet wrappers (23) and plastic bags (22). The results are listed on the Plasticblitz storymap.

The wider Thames21 Plasticblitz event saw nearly 40 groups and around 460 participants take part in the survey across the Thames and its tributaries, filling 430 bags and 45,000 metres of river cleared. Again plastic waste made up the majority at 85% of the total. As in our streams, some of the worst offending items were drinks cans and plastic drinks bottles, as well as crisp packets, wet wipes and cigarette stubs.

The WCAG/WEG Plasticblitz was a small but important contribution to making a difference to the quality of our environment. The scale of the challenge is still enormous.

Researchers estimate up to 12 million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans every year. Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) reports that 112,000 pieces of plastic packaging leave UK supermarkets every minute. Over seven million disposable coffee cups and 38 million plastic drinks’ bottles are bought in the UK each day.

SAS carries out an annual Citizen Science project that collects data on plastic pollution found on our beaches, streets and green or blue spaces. This year, 3,769 volunteers picked and cleared litter in an area of over 13,000 miles.

All the items found were categorised and their brands (if visible) tallied up. They found the worst offenders to be coffee cups, plastic takeaway packaging, avoidable food packaging, plastic bags, bathroom plastics, plastic cups and balloons and decorations.

The top 12 companies responsible for over 70% of branded pollution found across the UK were Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, McDonalds, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Mondelez International, Nestlé, Tesco, Red Bull GmbH, Suntory, Carlsberg Group, Heineken Holding and Mars.

As well as contributing to a vital clean-up of our land, rivers and oceans, collecting data from litter picks provides important evidence for understanding plastic pollution. The data can be used to educate groups, create publicity and lobby businesses, and empower the call for change from industry, governments and consumers.

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