Manchester river has worst microplastics pollution in the world

A Manchester river has been found to have the highest concentration of microplastics anywhere in the world, researchers at the University of Manchester have found.

In research published in Nature Geoscience, the River Tame, which flows through the Greater Manchester area and is part of the Mersey and Irwell river catchment areas, was found by geographers at the university to have a microplastics concentration of 517,000 particles per square metre.

This concentration was found to be more than 50 per cent higher than that found in the next ranked site in the study on the beaches of Incheon-Kyeonggi in South Korea. Further, the study finds that ‘the concentration of microplastics in river bed sediments of the Mersey catchment is higher than in any other environment—either deposited or in suspension—so far reported.’

Manchester river has worst microplastics pollution in the world, study finds
The River Tame

The research team studied 40 sites across the Greater Manchester area, collecting river sediments from urban rivers and rural streams across the area, and concluded that the Mersey and Irwell catchment areas had worse microplastics pollution than heavily urbanised and industrialised areas in the developing world such as the Incheon-Kyeonggi beaches and the Nakdong River Estuary in South Korea and the Pearl River Estuary in Hong Kong.

The news is somewhat surprising given a heavily-publicised study found that somewhere between 88-92 per cent of all plastic entering the marine environment comes from ten rivers in rapidly urbanising and industrialising areas of Africa and Asia.

Plastics waste has cemented itself at the top of the public news agenda in recent times, thanks in large part to David Attenborough’s BBC series Blue Planet II, which brought the issue into stark relief, and alarming figures on the amount of plastics entering the marine environment, with an estimated 8-12 million tonnes of plastic entering the oceans every year.

The surge in public interest in plastics pollution has not gone unnoticed by the nation’s politicians, with the government putting plastics front and centre of its long-awaited 25 Year Environment Plan, committing the UK to eliminating ‘avoidable’ plastic waste by 2042, while Environment Secretary Michael Gove made banning microbeads in wash-off cosmetics products one of his first actions following his appointment last June, a policy that entered into force in January.

Speaking in the Daily Telegraph, Jamie Woodward, Professor of Physical Geography at the the University of Manchester’s Department of Geography, said that the results were likely an indicator of more pollution across the rest of the UK and called on the Environment Agency (EA) to improve its monitoring of the issue: “If you had done the work in the West Midlands or South East England I am sure you would have got similar results. We’re shining a light on a huge problem that, until now, has been under the radar. We found microplastics everywhere, even in streams high in the hills. Wherever you find people, you find plastic.

“We found we had the worst levels in the world, some of which were extraordinarily high. The River Tame is a global hotspot for microplastics. Ultimately we need to get better at managing wastewater, and the Environment Agency urgently needs to look at Britain’s rivers and see what the extent of microplastics is in the UK.”

The research suggests that microplastics enter rivers through industrial effluent and domestic wastewater. The study also found that 70 per cent of the microplastics in the area studied were washed away to sea following floods in 2015/16 - “bad news” for the ocean environment, which already sees 35,000 tonnes of microplastics enter every year, with researchers from the University of Newcastle even finding microplastics are being ingested by microorganisms in the deepest parts of the world’s oceans.

“Microplastics in the ocean have recently attracted a lot of attention, but until now science knew little about the major sources of this pollution and the transport processes involved,” said Professor Woodward. “We are only beginning to understand the extent of the microplastic contamination problem in the world’s rivers. To tackle the problem in the oceans, we have to prevent microplastics entering river channels.”

In response to the release of the report, an Environment Agency spokesperson said: “We are working with the water industry and leading academics to investigate the types and quantities of microplastics entering the environment. This research will feed into plans to tackle this type of pollution at the source.

“Plastic pollution is a threat to our natural environment and by working together, we can reduce the amount which enters our land, rivers and the sea and protect wildlife for future generations.”

The full study - ‘Microplastic contamination of river beds significantly reduced by catchment-wide flooding’ - can be found online at Nature Geoscience.

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