River Thames ‘severely polluted’ with plastic, scientists say

Researchers say problem may grow worse due to masks and gloves used during pandemic

Rory Sullivan
Tuesday 21 July 2020 10:43 BST
Plastic bottles and other waste litter the shore of the River Thames at Queenhithe Dock, London.
Plastic bottles and other waste litter the shore of the River Thames at Queenhithe Dock, London.

Researchers have found that the River Thames is "severely polluted" with plastic, thereby posing a threat to wildlife and human health.

Scientists at Royal Holloway, University of London, have estimated that 94,000 microplastics flow down the river per second in some areas, a high level of contamination when compared to other freshwater environments across the globe.

They also discovered that crabs and other organisms in the river ingest plastic, including fibres from the outflow of washing machines and fragments of plastic packaging.

The problem may grow worse because of the large amount of single-use plastic products used during the pandemic.

Dave Morritt, a professor from the biological sciences department at Royal Holloway, said: “Taken together these studies show how many different types of plastic, from microplastics in the water through to larger items of debris physically altering the foreshore, can potentially affect a wide range of organisms in the River Thames."

“The increased use of single-use plastic items, and the inappropriate disposal of such items, including masks and gloves, along with plastic-containing cleaning products, during the current Covid-19 pandemic, may well exacerbate this problem," he added.

The research comprised three separate studies, which were carried out in collaboration with the National History Museum (NHM) and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

One of the projects looked into the level of microplastic contamination in the river, discovering that the Thames is highly polluted by plastic even by international standards.

Katharine Rowley, the lead researcher on this study, said: “Globally, in comparison to published estimates of microplastic contamination in marine and freshwater environments, the River Thames contains very high levels of this pollutant, potentially a major input to the North Sea.

"With the potential threats of plastic pollution to both human and ecosystem health, it is of great importance that the input of plastic into marine and freshwater environments is reduced.”

Of the two other studies, one found that 95 per cent of the mitten crabs examined had plastic tangled in their stomachs, while the other detected synthetic polymers in clams, possibly caused by the presence of "massive wet wipes reefs" on the shore of the Thames.

Katherine McCoy, whose study researched the flushing of wet wipes, called for tighter rules on the labelling and disposal of these items.

“This research highlights the impacts of improper waste disposal on our environment, especially the flushing of wet wipes. These products are often described as flushable, but they have been known to block sewage pipes by contributing to fatbergs and have now been seen to cause environmental disruption on the foreshores of the river Thames," she said.

Although the scientists acknowledged that previous clean-up campaigns have reduced pollutants such as heavy metals from the Thames, they are worried about the level of plastic pollution they found.

Anna Cucknell, ZSL’s Thames Project Manager, said: “Plastic pollution is devastating for aquatic ecosystems and I was shocked by the densities we found."

After saying that two types of seal and more than 100 species of fish lived in the Thames Estuary, she added: "We must not let plastic pollution threaten their survival.”

The research is published in the journals Science of the Total Environment and Environmental Pollution.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in