Covid emergency causing Thames to choke with pollution from single-use plastic PPE

Volunteers on the Isle of Dogs foreshore opposite Greenwich Palace

Volunteers on Isle of Dogs foreshore opposite Greenwich on an annual Thames21's clean-up - Credit: Thames21

The coronavirus is causing one of the biggest pollution crises along the Thames in decades including Covid face masks being washed ashore. 

Covid disposable face mask on the Thames foreshore at Isle of Dogs 

Discarded single-use Covid face mask washed up at Isle of Dogs - Credit: Thames21

One of the worst spots is the foreshore along the Isle of Dogs where the tidal flow is slowed down by the bend in the river, the latest mass survey by Thames 21 charity has found. 

Covid PPE being discarded included plastic gloves and masks found on 70 per cent of the stretches being studied. 

The foreshore was surveyed by staff and volunteers which has discovered “every section of river found to contain plastic” at an average of 322 pieces to every 100 yards.   

Microplastic pollution being fished out of Millwall Docks

Microplastic pollution fished out of Millwall Docks - Credit: Thames21

The pandemic also appears to be causing an increase in single-use plastic pollution, with 1,600 plastic cups recovered from clean-ups between July and September, twice as many as the same period last year despite pubs and restaurants being closed during the lockdown. 

Plastic cups washed up on the Thames foreshore

One of many single-use plastic cups washed up on the foreshore - Credit: Thames21

“Covid has seen the move away from reusable to single-use items in the mistaken belief that these are safer,” Thames21’s  monitoring co-ordinator AJ McConville said.

“The health of the Thames should not depend on volunteer clean-ups — we need to turn off the plastic tap at source. 

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“The government needs to push ahead with a system for drinks containers and materials — our rivers simply cannot wait.” 

The survey also found single-use plastic bottles were more widespread than previously thought, with 6,000 having to be removed from the Thames since clean-ups resumed in July, bringing the total count since 2016 to 124,000. 

Plastic bottles are washed up on the Thames foreshore

Thousands of plastic bottles are washed up on the Thames foreshore - Credit: Thames21

Project co-ordinator Alice Chamberlain said: “The number of bottles we’ve removed from the Thames really reflects the scale of plastic pollution."

There is no statutory monitoring of the Thames "despite the huge public concern" over plastic pollution, the charity points out. The gap is being filled by volunteers who have been going out on their annual trudge along the foreshore to clean it up, first started 20 years ago.

Thames21 is offering Covid-safe training for anyone wanting to help protect the river from plastic, while the GLA has guidelines to tackle the PPE to encourage the public to switch to reusable masks. 

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