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The Problem with Plastic: How The Thames is Changing

Before it became the iconic backdrop for Eastenders, the Thames, quite frankly, stank. In fact, according to a report in the Guardian during the 1950s, England’s longest river was so heavily polluted that it looked and smelled like a “badly managed open sewer.”

Such pollution occurred after perpetual airstrikes terrorised the capital in WW2. Many of the bombs damaged old sewers in the area, meaning the contaminated water was free to leak out and run into the nearest large body of water: The River Thames.

During the 60s and 70s, however, there were many successful clean-up efforts, with common pollutants like pesticides, fertilisers and toxic metals diverted from the river. The result was cleaner drinking water in the area, reduced risk of waterborne diseases and increased marine life.

The Thames’ next threat

While the Thames’ clean-up story continues, there is a new pollutant causing chaos: plastic. As one of the most overused materials in the world, there is growing concern over how our ‘Planet Plastic’ culture could cause irreparable damage to the UK’s already fragile ecosystem.

The problem with plastic

Just think about how often we use plastic: from water bottles to milk cartons, cappuccino cups to carrier bags, plastic is the omnipresent pest that continues to clog Britain’s arteries. Fuelled by our penchant for convenience, London’s residents have inadvertently filled the Thames with toxic compounds, most noticeably in the form of so-called “microplastics”.

It is these compounds which kill marine life when they are ingested, and which also find their way into our drinking water systems. So serious is this problem that, according to research by the Royal Holloway University, a third of all UK-caught fish (including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish) are found to have ingested plastic. Worryingly, this problem could spread to the 125 species of fish currently swimming in the Thames.

David Morritt, a professor at Royal Holloway University, further explains the impact of increased plastic consumption:

“The key is to drive behaviour change, to engage people, who are generally receptive to the environmental message, to recognise that plastic has a value, to encourage responsible recycling and disposal of plastic items. By doing this we can help reduce the input of plastics into the environment, much of which enters the world’s oceans, and also reduce the amount of new plastic being produced.”

And it is not only fish at threat. According to the Zoological Society of London, more than 2,000 seals have been spotted in the Thames over the past decade, along with hundreds of porpoises and dolphins. Even stray whales have been spotted.

Plastic waste

Of the millions of tonnes of plastic waste we currently produce in the UK, just 9 per cent of plastic waste is recycled. This means 91 per cent of plastic is either incinerated or dumped into natural environments. Unfortunately, both methods are not without consequence.

Incinerated plastic, for instance, produces harmful toxic gases, such as Dioxins, Furans, Mercury and Polychlorinated Biphenyls when burnt. This can lead to acid rain which, when it falls into our rivers, lakes and oceans, kills marine life and surrounding nature. Similarly, much of the plastic waste distributed into landfills goes on to produce methane gas – one of the four primary greenhouse gases. Rotting waste can also produce ‘leachate’, a residual liquid which strips water of its oxygen and has the propensity to destroy marine life.

How to reduce plastic pollution

Experts argue that by reducing our reliance on plastic, we can help to tidy up the River Thames – and our river systems in general. Several sustainable companies, such as EcoSafeand NaturTec , for instance, are already paving the way for a plastic-free world. Their design and manufacturing of organic recyclable products, including biodegradable liners, bags, zero waste bins and other bioplastics. are just some of the plastic-free alternatives they offer.

Governmental initiatives are also changing the way the general population manage their plastic waste. An introduction of a 5p charge on plastic bags was launched by the UK government in 2015, which saw plastic bag usage reduce by more than 85 per cent in its first year.

The success of this scheme has aided more recycling initiatives, the most notable being a deposit return scheme on plastic, glass and metal. There has also been talk around a 25p ‘latte levy’ for disposable coffee cups (their plastic polypropylene casing is unrecyclable) and a ban on single-use plastics.

This initiative became widespread news just last week, when the UK Government proposed a ban on plastic straws and cotton buds by 2019. Many well-known chains, including McDonald’s, Wetherspoons and Pret a Manger, are already looking to reduce plastic straw usage in their stores. They aim to do this by moving plastic straws away from ‘impulse’ areas, such as the front counter, as well as offering paper alternatives.

Likewise, microplastics are rarely far from the spotlight. With many microplastics hidden from view, however, it can be difficult to know which items are increasing plastic pollution. Toothpaste, facial scrubs and paint, for instance, are just some of the household items with “hidden microplastics.”

To aid the clean-up of microplastics, research bodies across the world are looking at new ways to reduce plastic in our oceans. One development, which looks at securing ‘floating barriers’ to seabeds, aims to catch, filter and funnel the stray plastic in oceans. After it is funnelled, the plastic is deemed safe for recycling, where it is then transferred to a recycling plant.

Are you interested in hearing more about the UK’s green spaces, and how we, as a nation, aim to protect them in the future? Pay a visit to the Crystal’s Future of Cities exhibition.

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