New study finds that 13 rivers across the UK are contaminated with microplastics

image: Greenpeace

Greenpeace, in collaboration with the University of Exeter, has carried out a scientific study on 13 UK rivers, which found that every river tested was contaminated with microplastics.  

The UK’s River Mersey contained more plastic pollution than the great pacific garbage patch, an area known by scientists as one of the most plastic-polluted expanses of water in the world.  


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Scientists and campaigners collected water samples in February and March at separate points along each of the 13 rivers, which were analysed using an infrared plastic detector called a fourier-transform infrared spectrometer (FTIR) 

Findings from the study include: 

  • A total of 1,271 pieces of plastics, ranging in size from straw and bottle-top fragments to tiny microbeads less than 1mm across 
  • The River Mersey was more polluted than the great pacific garbage patch – containing an equivalent to 2 million pieces of microplastic per square km 
  • Five out of the 13 rivers contained microbeads, which were partially banned in 2017 
  • More than half of the rivers tested contained plastic pellets, which are used as a raw material in the production of plastic products.  

From this, Greenpeace is calling on the UK Government to set legally binding plastic reduction targets in the upcoming Environment Bill, and to create an independent environmental watchdog with “proper powers” to enforce those targets.  

Greenpeace UK ocean plastics campaigners Fiona Nicholls said: “It’s been almost two years since Blue Planet 2 – and yet plastic use is still set to skyrocket. This study is a wake-up call for government. Fiddling around the edges of the plastic pollution problem by banning straws simply doesn’t cut it. 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.” 

Greenpeace research laboratories at the University of Exeter senior scientist David Santillo said: “The results of this report speak for themselves. Every single river we tested contained microplastic, and given what is known already about the effects of plastics on marine wildlife, it is reasonable to assume that the plastic pollution of our rivers poses some level of threat to river wildlife. There is an urgent need for research to better understand those threats, as well as the risks to human health. We ignore this problem at our peril. Once microplastics are in the river, they become impossible to remove again, so we have to solve the problem at the source.” 

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