The day before last weekend’s Boat Race, Londoners were invited to investigate a growing plastic menace on the Thames.
Thames21’s The Big Count, now in its third year, was an opportunity for the public to contribute to the ongoing Thames River Watch citizen science programme monitoring the health of the Thames.
South of Hammersmith Bridge, mysterious new mounds have started to appear at low tide. Although these mounds look like natural sandbanks, they are largely made up of wet wipes, which do not break down as they contain plastic. Mud and twigs build up round them to reshape the riverbed. The Big Count aims to find out just how much plastic is contained within those mounds.
The latest Thames River Watch findings, released in January, showed that wet wipes are one of the top 10 items found on the Thames foreshore. But they are hugely under-represented in the data because those sites are difficult to access and because they become tangled together.
The highest concentration recorded to date was on the south side of Hammersmith Bridge where 150 wet wipes were found in 1m2, counting those found on the surface only.
The Thames River Watch project is funded by Tideway, the company building the Thames Tideway Tunnel. Andrew Triggs Hodge, the recently-retired Olympic rower, who now works for Tideway, said: “Throughout my rowing career, I regularly saw at first hand the discharges of sewage into the river from London’s overburdened, Victorian sewers.
“Wet wipes and the rest of what is flushed down London’s toilets have no place in the city’s biggest natural asset. That’s why I am so excited to be part of the team now delivering the Thames Tideway Tunnel, which will capture these all too frequent, unacceptable discharges, including from overflow points within yards of the Boat Race course at Putney and Hammersmith.
“With our construction work now ramping up every day, the good news is that the tunnel within a matter of years will transform the quality of the river for this and many generations to come.
“We are also intensely proud to be supporting Thames21’s River Watch campaign, which is doing so much to raise awareness of the health of the Thames and reconnect Londoners with the waterway that has been so central to the city’s development.”
Since its launch in 2014, Thames River Watch has conducted 56 litter surveys across 15 sites on the Thames, through its network of trained citizen scientists. Its report earlier this year threw up new insights about the health of the river, and the growing impact of plastic on London’s iconic waterway.