Wet wipe pollution disfigures British riverbeds

A record number of wet wipes have been found in the River Thames in London, with over 5,000 uncovered in one single area.  

Over 5,000 discarded wet wipes were found in one single area of the Thames foreshore near the iconic Hammersmith Bridge in London last month.

This is the highest number of wet wipes ever found in a single place in the UK.

The wet wipe pollution is collecting there in such numbers it has changed the shape of the riverbed, creating low mounds visible at low tide, according to Thames21.

Wet wipes, which contain plastic, enter the river through the sewage system, after people have mistakenly flushed them down their toilets, explained the waterways charity in a statement.

The overloaded sewage system overflows on average once a week, discharging ‘unflushables’ such as wet wipes into the river, it added. The plastic in wet wipes means that they do not biodegrade and, unlike bottles, they are heavy and tend to sink to the bottom of rivers.

“The sheer quantity of these wet wipes shows the urgency of this problem”, commented Debbie Leach, CEO of Thames21. “As a country, action is being taken about other products which contain plastic such as bottles and cotton buds.

“We now need to widen our attention to include wet wipes and sanitary products which contain plastic and are being flushed into our rivers.”

Wet wipes, which have increased by 700 per cent over the past decade, also contribute to the microplastics problem, breaking down into tiny particles that can enter the food chain and endanger marine life. A recent study found more than seven in 10 Thames flounder had plastics in their stomachs, according to the statement.

It is likely that the wet wipe problem is affecting other rivers around Britain, said Thames21. There are between 25,000 and 31,000 combined sewer overflows around the UK coast that discharge raw, untreated or lightly treated human sewage, particularly after periods of heavy rain or during breakdowns in the sewerage system.

Photo credit: Miguel/ CC BY-NC 2.0

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