Out of sight, not out of mind
The Velox team took to the canals of West London on stand-up paddle boards one afternoon in June. With a rubbish bin and a litter picker each we spent the afternoon combing the stretch of canal between Paddington and Little Venice for plastic waste.
Stand up paddling, plastic picking and avoiding boats and birds involved more skill than anticipated but somehow only one of us went for an unplanned swim. In just four hours we collected quite a staggering amount of plastic waste between us, and we barely even made a dent on what we saw but couldn’t reach beneath the surface. The floor of the canal in areas where it was clear enough to see was layered with plastic bags and larger objects and that image has really stuck with me.
Some photos from our afternoon plastic picking on the canal
Amongst all of the (sadly) expected single use plastic offenders; plastic cups, bags, bottles and straws, we found a large number of disposable plastic masks, including some innovatively woven in to a Moorhens nest. In November 2020 Tradewaste.co.uk published results of a survey [i] reporting that the UK alone was sending 53 million masks to landfill per day, which is a massive problem in itself… but also that a lot more masks are not making it to landfill and instead being littered, ending up in streams, rivers and eventually in the sea.
This is not the only way the pandemic has increased the plastic pollution problem. As so many have spent a lot more time at home, people have relied on their local parks, river and canal sides for exercise and as an essential way to boost their wellbeing. Unfortunately more visitors = more rubbish. The Canal and Rivers Trust recently quoted [ii] that each year an estimated 14 million pieces of plastic rubbish end up in and around the UK’s canals and rivers, with around 500,000 pieces flowing out into our oceans. As city dwellers we have ostensibly good waste management systems in place and our streets are constantly cleaned for us, but is this actually just enabling our unsustainable relationship with single use plastics to continue? The recent heatwaves in the UK meant a lot of Londoners headed to their local parks to enjoy the good weather and meet with friends for long-awaited drinks and BBQs following prolonged lockdowns. However, images widely circulated on social media and the news showed the aftermath of various parks around London swimming with litter. The Royal Parks published a press release last week [iii] pleading with the public to take their litter home with them. It included a heart breaking image of a cormorant in Regents Park with a plastic beer ring trapped around its neck and beak. It is clear that even in one of the most progressive cities in the world, there is still a long way to go and a huge collective behavioural change required.
After we were back on dry land we had a drink nearby and got on to the topic of some of the changes we have all been making personally in terms of reducing our use of single use plastics. We debated various challenges in terms of accessibility, cost and effort and once again I was reminded of the excellent values our small team shares, and also how informative and inspiring it can be to open up a discussion on these matters.
Are there any changes you can make too?