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Throwaway Covid masks and gloves making Thames microplastic pollution ‘among worst in the world’

PUBLISHED: 15:00 22 July 2020

Volunteers clearing plastic pollution on Isle of Dogs foreshore. Picture: Thames21

Volunteers clearing plastic pollution on Isle of Dogs foreshore. Picture: Thames21

Thames21

Throwaway sanitiser gloves and masks from the Coronavirus emergency is adding to pollution in the Thames that’s being washed up along the foreshore, scientists have found.

Cleaning up plastic in Millwall Docks that seeps into River Thames. Picture: Canal & River TrustCleaning up plastic in Millwall Docks that seeps into River Thames. Picture: Canal & River Trust

The river now has some of the highest levels of microplastic pollution almost anywhere in the world, it is estimated.

Even volunteers who regularly clean up river bends around the Isle of Dogs where most pollution gets washed up can’t spot the microplastics.

The quantity of 94,000 microplastics per second has been measured which exceeds that found in the Danube or the Rhine, with only the Yangzte in China worse.

Researchers from Royal Holloway University are now calling for tougher regulations on labelling and disposing plastic products in their report into Thames pollution.

Dead fish... caused by pollution in the Lea River at Hackney Wick which feeds into the Thames. Picture: Canal & River TruistDead fish... caused by pollution in the Lea River at Hackney Wick which feeds into the Thames. Picture: Canal & River Truist

More single-use plastic items such as masks and gloves being disposed along with cleaning products during the Covid-19 pandemic “may well exacerbate this problem”, Royal Holloway’s Prof Dave Morritt warns.

Some “eco-aware” manufacturers are heeding the scientists’ warning and switching away from plastics in their products, such as Confendental toothpaste.

The company’s chief executive Yogesh Bali told the East London Advertiser: “This report is a terrifying reminder of the consequences of our throwaway society that uses plastic just once then discards it. Too much ends up in the river and out at sea, polluting the water and killing wildlife.

“The answer is remove plastic from single-use products and packaging, something that big brands are dragging their feet over.”

Canary Wharf declared 'plastic free zone' to help protect Millwall Docks and River Thames. Picture: CWGCanary Wharf declared 'plastic free zone' to help protect Millwall Docks and River Thames. Picture: CWG

Thames 21 charity has regular volunteer cleaning events along the Isle of Dogs foreshore where floating debris gets trapped at sharp river bends like Millwall and Blackwall, but it can’t tackle microplastics in the water such as glitter, microbeads from cosmetics and fragments from packaging.

Volunteers went on a massive clean-up of the Millwall Docks in 2018 to stop plastic waste washing into the Thames and out to sea, which was organised by the Canal & River Trust. Ross Fogden from the trust said at the time: “Plastic ends up in the seas and oceans affecting marine life, so it’s important keeping the Millwall Dock clean.”

Canary Wharf’s business district declared a “plastic free” zone last year and banned non-biodegradable materials in disposable coffee cups and other packaging.

The inventor of the chemical process that produces plastic was the Victorian chemist Alexander Parkes at his lab in Hackney Wick in 1856. An exhibition on his invention was staged at Bow Arts’ Nunnery Gallery and Bethnal Green’s Museum of Childhood last year, looking into ways technology must adapt to sustain its worldwide uses today.

Alexander Parkes' Hackney Wick factory where he invented plastic process in 1856. Picture: Hackney ArchiveAlexander Parkes' Hackney Wick factory where he invented plastic process in 1856. Picture: Hackney Archive

It is now one of the planet’s most debated materials, with the Royal Holloway’s latest research into Thames microbe pollution reported in the science journals Environmental Pollution and Science of the Total Environment — something Alexander Parkes couldn’t have quite anticipated with his “wonder product”.


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