Plastic pollution in the Thames is reaching record-breaking levels.
Here’s something you didn’t see in our list of fun facts about the River Thames: our river is has some of the highest recorded levels of microplastics in the world, making it one of the most plastic-polluted rivers on Earth. A new study, carried out by Royal Holloway University – in conjunction with the Natural History Museum and the Zoological Society of London – has found that up to 94,000 microplastics flow down the river every second.
Now, nobody in their sane mind has ever looked at the River Thames and thought it was clean, but even so, this is a staggering finding. 94,000 microplastics per second is a level which puts the Thames on a higher level of plastic pollution than the Danube, the Rhine, and the Chicago River, and behind only the likes of China’s Yangtze river. Researchers measured microplastic levels at two sites along the inner London stretch of the Thames – one in Putney, the other in Greenwich – and found microplastic levels comparable with the highest in the world: around 24.8 microplastics per cubic metre of water in Putney, and 14.2 in Greenwich. And that figure for Greenwich is lower only because the Thames is far wider downstream…
The environmental fallout of this is, as you’d expect, devastating. Microplastics have been found in the stomachs of at least nine species of fish living in the Thames, and river crabs have also ingested plastic that’s found its way into the Thames (and that’s before you even mention London’s cocaine-addled eels). Food packaging looks to be a major culprit; the study found that almost 94% of microplastics in their samples was from film lids and fragments (the sort you find on your ready meals). However, glitter, microbeads from cosmetics, and microplastic fragments from larger items were also found in abundance, whilst researchers noted that flushed wet wipes have also been piling up along the shoreline.
The findings represent a sobering moment for all Londoners, a clear wake-up call that greener living must become an urgent priority. Whilst the study noted that the Thames is cleaner now than it has been in the past, as a result of fewer trace metals in the water, microplastics have become the biggest threat to the health of our river, and to marine ecosystems around the globe. Worse still, this level of pollution is likely to grow as a result of the pandemic, with vast amounts of PPE and masks needing responsible disposal – and not always getting it. Though projects such as the Thames Tideway (which is installing a super-sewer beneath the river to help clean it up) are working towards a healthier river, it’s incumbent upon us as Londoners to do all we can to prevent plastic from clogging up the Thames.
You can read the full study here.
Also published on Medium.