Just twelve months ago the South East Rivers Trust (SERT) ran its first Preventing Plastic Pollution cleanup in the Medway catchment. Since then we have organised 15 more. Through these events we have engaged 365 volunteers ranging from experienced litter-pickers to novices, canoeists, stand-up paddlers, boat drivers, volunteers on foot, school pupils and college students, as well as corporate volunteers. A key goal we have achieved is engaging with 102 young people in the 16-36 age bracket, the least represented group in volunteering activities. This was possible mainly through the collaboration with secondary and higher education institutes.
“Cleanups are a great tool to engage volunteers with the issue of litter and specifically that of plastic pollution,” said Gloria Francalanci, SERT’s PPP Project Manager. “Despite the varying degrees of awareness volunteers might have, facing the issue first hand it is always an eye opening experience. The volume of litter we recover, and that of specific plastic items, never cease to amaze participants or us.”
Collecting litter along the Medway’s 70 miles is no small task as the catchment covers a surface of 1,857km2 which is not always easy to access. The river rises in Ashdown Forest, Sussex, (AA Milne’s inspiration for Winnie the Pooh) and touches small parts of Surrey before taking in large swathes of Kent. The terrain varies through rural and urban areas to tidal and coastal sections, running into the Thames estuary and English Channel. Such a wealth of diversity provides the perfect platform to identify pathways of plastic pollution from source to sea.
Thanks to efforts by groups like the Tonbridge Canoe Club (pictured above), so far, PPP’s cleanups on the Medway removed nearly a ton (1000kg!) of litter, including 357 sacks worth, plus bulky items too big to be bagged. What is special about PPP’s cleanups is that these events include an additional citizen science activity of sorting litter per type to identify where these originate and how they travel through the catchment.
Many of the bulky items we recovered were flytipped in hidden spots – sofa cushions, a fridge, large plastic sheeting – or goliarderly thrown in the river – tyres, bikes, shopping trolleys, a postman bag, walking aids and TVs.
Generally, basic recreational activities seem to be the ones producing the highest volume of litter with drink bottles and lids, cigarette butts and crisp or sweet wrappers being almost always the most frequently picked-up items. Sadly, availability of bins doesn’t seem to discourage littering of such items, but it does appear to make a substantial difference when it comes to bagged dog waste. In urban areas we found several pieces of magnet fishing equipment whereas waste related to angling is more frequent leaving town.
Working closer to the Estuary, we have collected higher volumes of flushed plastics – wet wipes, sanitary products, cotton bud sticks – items brought to the beach by the tide – including floaters – and bits of plastic that have been in water for so long that are hard to identify.
Gloria added: “We’re proud to have diverted such a volume of litter from the river environment and we couldn’t have reached such great results without the help of volunteers. Throughout the year we have fostered existing relationships with our local partners the Medway Valley Countryside Partnership and the Medway Swale Estuary Partnership, and developed a network of contacts with local organisations and community groups. We value their input and support in delivering the project and we intend to keep working with them in the short and long term. Communities all along the Medway are showing a real interest in plastic pollution and want to address how we can keep it out of the river and surrounding areas. We look forward to progressing the work throughout the following months.”