Posted on 17/07/2019
When confronted by images of the Great Pacific garbage patch – that vast man-made island of marine debris composed mainly of plastic that has accumulated in the North Pacific – it is easy to feel horrified, guilty and powerless. Much of that rubbish will have started life in inland rivers and waterways, which is one of the many reasons why the Canal & River Trust launched its Plastics Challenge campaign this summer.
The Trust studied the extent of the problem of plastic pollution on the network, analysed some of the dangers and then proposed solutions – the most simple and effective of which is that everybody who visits the canals could take one piece of plastic away with them. Do that, and within a year our canals would be virtually plastic free. You see, you can make a difference.
“We knew we had an issue with litter and plastic on the waterways and we wanted to do something about it,” says Lucy Scott, the Trust’s campaign manager. “What we didn’t know was the extent of the issue. So we did some research to look at what was in our waterways in partnership with Coventry University.” That research revealed that there are 24 million items of litter being dropped or blown onto our waterways every year and 14 million (59%) of these are plastics, mainly comprised of bags, bottles, disposable cups and food wrappers. Furthermore, it’s estimated that more than 500,000 plastic items flow from the inland waterways into the sea every year at any of the 20 points where the network connects with tidal water or large rivers, showing that litter on the canals and rivers is a small part of a much bigger problem.
Those 24 million items of unwanted litter are not simply left lying on the towpath. The Trust is already spending £1m per year on the problem, while volunteers now devote 100,000 hours a year to collecting litter from the network. The Trust has analysed particularly bad areas for rubbish – generally those in town centres – and deals with the accumulation of debris as often as possible. But not every item can be collected, and that’s where the Trust is asking for help.
Given the huge numbers of annual visitors to our waterways, it’s estimated that if everybody takes one item of plastic home with them, the canals would soon be entirely clear of rubbish. As part of the campaign, users are being encouraged to take a selfie of themselves with the rubbish before they bin it, using the social media hashtag #PlasticsChallenge – that way the message will spread, encouraging more people to join the campaign and collect a piece of plastic when they are using the canals. It’s a simple solution to a huge problem, and it’s one that has caught the imagination.
“The simplicity of the message is very appealing and as the canals are on everybody’s doorstep it’s easy for anybody to help,” says Scott. “Now we have people’s attention we can look at other options for the public to help. We are now thinking about the next stage of the campaign which is to encourage people to think twice before they purchase something that uses plastic, or to consider joining a towpath taskforce for an organised litter pick.” Volunteer numbers have risen by 100% over the past 12 months and some canal users have started their own weekly litter patrols as a result of the campaign. Volunteers on the Bridgwater & Taunton Canal are attracting around 30 to 50 attendees to their monthly clean-ups, some of whom collect rubbish from the canal in kayaks while others stick to the towpath.
The issue of plastic pollution is complex. Plastic is cheap, light and practical, making it easier for consumers and producers to use as packaging than other materials. The problem is that it is harder to recycle than metal cans or paper, and it doesn’t biodegrade. Peter Birch, national environmental policy advisor with the Canal & River Trust, emphasises the importance of personal responsibility among consumers who purchase items wrapped in plastic – “if people don’t drop litter, there wouldn’t be a problem” – but he also notes that the broader issues can only be solved by the producers, who either need to reduce their reliance on single-use plastics or to drive improvements in recycling. The desire should be to create a closed loop, where plastic can be completely recycled and reused by the manufacturer. Consumers could possibly be rewarded for returning using packaging, to further encourage recycling.
One unexpected result of the campaign it that it has encouraged the Trust to look at its own use of plastics. Volunteers on litter pickers are no longer given plastic bin liners to fill, but instead use bags made from corn starch, while the Trust is also looking more carefully at its use of plastic around the network. “We know the campaign is really working and generating a lot of support,” says Birch. “People are asking how they can help, and asking what they can do to reduce the use of plastic on the waterways. For instance, lots of ropes and fenders are plastic – should we be looking at using more traditional material. This is the first time we’ve had a campaign that’s made us think about what we are doing too.”
Take the #PlasticsChallenge
The next time you visit a waterway near you:
- Pick up just one piece of plastic
- Take a photo of you with it and share it on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #PlasticsChallenge
- Take it home with you and either bin it or recycle it correctly