Imagine: the most polluted patch of water on the planet — three times the size of France — so full of plastic that the only way to fix it is with a 2,000 foot-long floating barrier that collects rubbish as it moves.
It’s called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. But it isn’t such an alien dystopia.
It turns out that the world’s waste bin is far closer to home than we thought — indeed, a new report has discovered that there’s a river in the UK that might actually be more polluted.
Greenpeace has discovered that the River Mersey, based in the north east of England, likely has up to six times the number of pieces of plastic per square kilometre than the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The environmental charity estimated that there are 2 million pieces per km² in the Mersey, based off a search that found 875 pieces in just 30 minutes. That’s all in contrast the historic rubbish patch— located between Hawaii and California — that holds between 334,271 to 1,000,000 pieces of plastic.
The study suspects there may be a reason for this, too: there’s a factory right on the river that’s run by a plastic producing company called Basell Polyolefins UK. It produces tiny plastic pellets called “nurdles” that are used to make most plastic products. The firm responded by saying it does “everything possible” to prevent its materials escaping into the environment.
BREAKING: we found plastic in EVERY UK river we tested. One river, the River Mersey, contains proportionally more plastic than the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.— Greenpeace UK (@GreenpeaceUK) June 19, 2019
Is your MP taking action? 👉🏽✊🏽https://t.co/jApEfrPp5o#PlasticFreeRivers#WarOnPlastic#plasticpollution#Merseypic.twitter.com/cg1TGydwj8
The Greenpeace investigation also found microplastics in each of the 13 UK rivers that were tested. Nearly half contained microbeads, a type of microplastic, often found in hygiene products like shampoos, that was banned in Britain last year.
It discovered that the Thames was the second-most polluted river in the UK, finding 108 pieces of plastic, followed by the River Aire in Yorkshire (63), the Severn (42) and the Trent (35).
It’s estimated that Britain produces approximately 1.7 million tonnes of plastic annually. Globally, 320 million tonnes gets produced each year — a figure that’s set to double by 2034, according to Surfers Against Sewage. Yet 90.5% of all plastic has never been recycled.
Inevitably, that means plastic either gets incinerated — creating greenhouse gases that then warms the planet, provoking climate change — or sent to landfill. Eventually, it can reach the oceans, harming marine life who often consume the materials by accident, and even end up back in the human food chain too.
A survey by @Greenpeace has found that the River Mersey contains more plastic than the most polluted parts of the worlds ocean.— Sky Ocean Rescue (@SkyOceanRescue) June 19, 2019
Sky's @sallylockwood is in Liverpool and has the latest on this.
Read more on this story here: https://t.co/tqZS5jqKEEpic.twitter.com/NaNlv2Jahr
That’s why Greenpeace is using its new report to urge the UK government to set legally binding targets to reduce plastic pollution.
"Fiddling around the edges of the plastic pollution problem by banning straws simply doesn't cut it,” said Fiona Nicholls, ocean plastics campaigner for Greenpeace UK. "We need to see bold new plastic reduction targets in the upcoming environment bill, and aim to at least halve single use plastic production by 2025."
While the government acknowledged the scale of the problem, it said that the UK is a “global leader” on the issue.
"The UK is a global leader in tackling plastic pollution and is already making great strides — banning microbeads in rinse-off personal care products, taking 15 billion plastic bags out of circulation with our 5p carrier bag charge, and announcing plans to introduce a deposit return scheme for single use drinks containers,” said a spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
"We know there is more to do, which is why we are funding ground-breaking research into how microplastics enter waterways and working with the water industry to find new methods to detect, measure and remove microplastics from wastewater,” they added.