The UK’s rivers and seas are an environmental disgrace and a real
and present danger to our health, writes Barry Twigg
I think we can all agree we’ve been made painfully aware of the plastic waste pollution in our oceans. The most popular figure quoted is some nine million tonnes per annum which is based on a study by the UN Environment Agency. As over 80 percent of this plastic waste comes from six Asian countries and just nine rivers, it’s obvious that the rest of the world makes a much lesser contribution. So, what addition does the UK make?
Whilst it’s impossible to measure its contribution in tonnes, somewhat surprisingly as a highly developed Western economy, our contribution to plastic pollution goes through our washing machines and surface water drainage. This is in the form of microplastics, which are particles of film below 5mm and as small as 10 nanometers. These come predominantly from washing synthetic materials and/or car tyres, road markings, even tea bags and whilst their use has been banned since 2018 in cosmetics and cleaning products they continue to be included in some agricultural products from where they are washed into our rivers. To give the numbers some context, a Conservation of Nature Study found that one washing machine load of synthetic fibre could send 700,000 microscopic plastic fibres down the drain! Car tyres, meanwhile, leave a constant residue of plastic waste on our roads just waiting to be washed away.
The consequence of all this plastic fibre entering our watercourses is that aquatic life, in both rivers and seas, is absorbing plastic as part of their daily diet. So much so that scientists from the National History Museum found that no less than a third of fish in the River Thames and 40 percent of fish in the Clyde contained plastic, whilst further afield, microplastics have been found in shellfish in the deep Oceans. Despite assurances from the World Health Organisation (WHO) that there is no evidence to suggest that these microplastics present any danger to health, either to marine life or humans, there is constant pressure for them to be banned and/or hundreds of millions of pounds to be spent on filters to enable their collection and disposal.
Contrast these concerns with the problem of raw sewage entering our rivers. Thames Water pumps over one million tonnes of raw sewage into the river Thames each year. In addition, there are some 18,000 licences currently valid in the UK which allow the water companies to pump raw sewage into our rivers. As a consequence, some 40 percent of our rivers in the UK are polluted with raw sewage. Somewhat surprisingly, we also still have over 15,000 outlets licenced to dump raw sewage directly into the surrounding seas. Contrast this waste with that of plastic. Again, according to WHO, microplastic presents no danger to health whilst it claims, ‘the dumping of raw sewage into rivers is the most urgent environmental crisis currently facing the UK.’
They take this view as raw sewage contains E coli, pathogens and parasites when ingested by humans: these can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and cramps, along with fever level temperatures and the occasional death!
So, there you have it. For those of us who eat fish and drink water, we are likely to be sampling a plastic and sewage cocktail, with the sewage residue as the active ingredient!
Perhaps the next time we read about the very real problem of reducing plastic waste pollution in the ocean we should relate this to the much more toxic problem (which is rarely publicised) of reducing river pollution from human waste. I think we can all agree, this presents a much greater hazard to our personal health and our environment.