A key aspect of Greenpeace’s recent report (easy-reading version here / full version here) is how at the time of measurement, there was more micro-plastic in the River Mersey (measured just downstream of Victoria Park here) than the Pacific Garbage Patch – an alarming thing to read.
Since I am not equipped with a manta trawl net for measuring microplastics, I thought I would head down to the river and see what macroplastics (plastic litter larger than 5mm) I could see with my own eyes.
I also wanted to see if I could get any sense at all of the distribution of this litter, and come up with some ideas for further investigation and initial remedial action.
My short excursion took me eastwards from Victoria Park, next to which the Mersey flows westward towards the town centre, via the north-west end of Paddington meadows just prior to the river’s first real encounter with Warrington proper on its north bank, to Westy where it first encounters a Warrington residential area on the other bank.
I took a triangular route from the main car park, round the west end of the stadium to the river, then followed the bank eastwards until almost adjacent with the rowing club, then took a path through the trees back into the park. I then walked across the very damp grassy field back to the stadium and my car.
Some of the things I noticed:
- There was a lot of litter in the park – fairly uniformly distributed across the fields – perhaps a bit more concentrated along the grassy side-lines of the paint-marked grass pitches.
- There were very few litter bins – even along the paths which are mostly on the more southern parts of the park.
- There are few or no stone paths on the northern end of the park, where the grass pitches are. I wonder if, along with there being no bins at all in this area, this might cause the litter to be more evenly distributed as people choose arbitrary routes across the field.
- A lot of litter was to be found in the tree-line (picture above) between the park and the River Mersey. A lot of it was plastic.
- I noticed bottles and tin-foil wrappers particularly around the fishing pontoons, including on bottle that had been specifically cut in half and was muddy inside. I won’t jump to conclusions and say that anglers left this waste – but it is one possibility.
- No bins to be found anywhere along this riverside footpath, nor on the tracks through the trees leading to and from it. The closest bin appeared to be on the far side of the football pitches alongside one of the stone-path, and even then I could see very few bins along those paths.
- There are very few bins even around more busy areas like the very fancy-looking stadia, one of the only ones (pictured) being already full of single-use drinks bottles and close to overflowing. I noticed a wheely-bin had been brought out presumably to help that permanent bin with its match-day workload.
Considering the potential of the park, it’s proximity to a river, and the sponsorship of the 2 expensive-looking stadia by a well known sports brand, I was bemused to find so few litter bins – and am quite convinced that were there more, then litter problem would be greatly alleviated. After all, research has found that “the distance to a trash receptacle was the strongest predictor of littering… So the farther away you are from a trash can or a recycling container, the more likely you are to litter “.
I also went to the other side of the river to remind myself whether there are any bins along Howley Lane leading up to and including the rowing club. I observed that:
- There were 2 rather full-looking dog-waste bins along the river-side stretch of Howley Lane. Compostable dog-waste forever wrapped in non-compostable human waste – great.
- 1 litter bin about half way along the road, plus one in the small play-park (way more bins per square-metre than Victoria Park!).
- No public litter bins outside the rowing club. The club its self has its own indoor bins for its very conscientious members (though I’m biased), but given its easy access to a river the land outside is often frequented by families coming to feed the ducks, kids hanging out together, and so on. A lot of litter is and has been evident in this area, including an unbelievable number of discarded silver laughing-gas canisters. The mind boggles.
My overall feeling is that to give so little attention to binfrastructure (a real word I discovered yesterday!) in public spaces that are not only used regularly by people of all ages, but also so close to a well-known river, is just tempting litter-pollution problems in the river. Once litter enters the river it is much more difficult to extract it than if it were prevented from entering in the first place. I therefore feel that preventative steps like adequate provision for bins, signs between bins pointing out the closest bin and warning of fines for litterers, and more frequent litter-picking are all worth considering.
These photos were taken here.
I have before seen this particular large collection of plastic bottles in the treeline between the north-end of Paddington Meadows and the River Mersey about a month ago, and I wanted to return to see if it was still there given the recent storms and occasional litter-pickers.
Fortunately it hadn’t been washed further towards the sea. Most of the bottles look quite weathered, as if they are quite old and have come from further upstream – my guess being that they are from Greater Manchester via the ship-canal and the upstream section of the Mersey which resumes near Irlam docks & Cadishead. It stands to reason that near-river littering patterns already observed are not limited to this part of Warrington – and the catchment of the Mersey is so large that these bottles could have come from 30 miles upstream or more.
The sad news is that once it does get washed into the ocean, there is a strong chance of it never leaving – and gradually breaking down into smaller and smaller fragments as the centuries go by – via small pellets, to microplastics and beyond to nanoplastics. The smaller the particle, the earlier it can find it’s way into the food-chain.
We should think about that when we tuck into our nice portion of Fish and Chips and Plastic.
One of the Mersey’s first encounters with residential Warrington other than Woolston near the weir. Like much of the section of the Mersey upstream of Victoria Park, Westy is separated from the river by the – quite attractive in my opinion – River Mersey Flood Defences. Despite the £33m cost of building this wall, though, I again saw almost no bins along the length leading from the rowing club to Paddington Meadow; and literally done on the Westy portion that runs along Mersey Walk.
I was therefore not surprised to see litter floating in the river, including a polypropylene takeaway box. Again I saw more close to fishing-pontoons, though the bank is well endowed with wild foliage along much of this length and so it is difficult to tell whether the litter-density is more focussed around these accessable points or not. Earlier near Paddington Meadows I saw a quite nice Anglers Club embossed metal sign politely asking anglers to take the litter away with them, so clearly someone else had a similar line of thought. Assuming signs are cheaper than bins – I feel they are a step in the right direction – though signs directing the passer-by to the nearest bin would be even better!
Either way, despite this area having been clearly maintained as a route for walkers, anglers and so on – and being next to the river – not a single litter bin was to be found.
As an aside, I came across Westy Flow Measurement Station – which tracks the flow-rate and height of the river. These are dotted all along the Mersey at perhaps 5 mile intervals all the way from the Rivers Tame and Goyt down to the estuary in Liverpool. They could at least be useful fixed reference-points for doing my own water-quality testing in future, and perhaps the Environment Agency might consider ways of automating such testing themselves in future?
This was an interesting outing which gave me a greater sense of the River Mersey’s plastic-waste and general litter problems than I was expecting. It had a strikingly similar feeling to my enjoyable GCSE Geography field trips, with perhaps a pleasant hint of eccentricity thrown in for good measure!
The main theories I’ve come away with, which seem to warrant further investigation, include:
- Rivers should be protected from Litter waste by adequate provision of Litter bins, and signs in between them both helpfully informing passers-by of the location of the nearest bin, as well as the fine they will have to pay if caught littering.
- As well as more bins, having more stone paths in Victoria Park might direct pedestrian traffic more readily towards bins, and at least constrain the worst litter to near those paths where the council’s roadsweepers might reach them more easily.
- The River Mersey and its catchment is so large that Litter could be coming from a wide range of settlements 30 miles or more upstream. This is in addition to other sources of plastic and other pollution such as the many industrial facilities that line the banks of the river.
- Perhaps Flow Measurement stations are a useful fixed-reference-points for carrying out more detailed & regular water-quality tests – for plastic and otherwise – than for example Greenpeace’s. Initially manually by volunteers, perhaps eventually automatically by the Environment Agency.
Actions that I intend to undertake include:
- Organise a litter-pick as soon as possible to address the plastic waste I discovered on the shoreline at Paddington Meadows, before storms & resulting high water wash it away; or do it myself.
- Contact the council to discuss whether provision for Litter Bins in Victoria Park can be improved – particularly closer to the River Mersey where it would be more rapidly washed or blown into the river. Also discuss my ideas about the benefits of having more stone paths.
- Also discuss with the council whether they feel Warrington in general needs more Litter Bins, with higher density closer to the town’s waterways.
- Contact the owners of the stadia and find out what they can do to encourage reusable-bottle use among their athletes (worth noting that Warrington Rowing Club on the other side of the river already has a “no single-use plastics” policy – which could be useful to mention).
- Join in other litter-picks I know to be operating in the area.
- I will attend my River Guardian training day this Saturday with Mersey Rivers Trust. Discuss my thoughts & findings with them.
- Find out through reading, discussion and observation whether the patterns described here a consistent all along the Mersey, and what other patterns exist.
I will report back with updates as I go!