Millions of wet wipes flushed into the Thames causing plastic nightmare

Matted, grey-brown and soaked in filth, the great mounds reveal themselves at low tide on the Thames —“millions” of old wet wipes, flushed away by Londoners, clumping together to form filthy reefs.

Campaigners trying to clean up the river warned today of a “huge and complicated litter problem” after pulling 115,000 non-biodegradeable wipes from just one site so far this year -writes

Every time volunteers go back to the 1,250sq ft spot by Hammersmith Bridge, the stringy mass has returned in abundance. Nearly 5,500 wipes were collected by “citizen scientists” during a single two-hour foreshore session in May — a record. Some 120 heavy bin bags full are usually removed at each clean-up.

Wet wipes contain plastic which means they do not break down. They drop to the riverbed and collect at bends where the current slows, with “massive amounts” also noted at Barnes, Putney, Battersea, Isleworth and Vauxhall.

They are even changing the shape of the riverbed and foreshore, with wildfowl sitting on great clumps of debris. Boat owners have reported wipes getting stuck in propellers.

Wipes are usually made of a cotton-like fabric woven together with plastic resins such as polyester or polypropylene, which can enter the food chain. Studies have found three quarters of Thames flounder have plastic in their gut.

Charity Thames21 works with communities to improve London’s rivers and canals for people and wildlife. A J McConville, ecologist and co-ordinator of its River Watch project, said: “There must be millions of wet wipes on the Thames foreshore and riverbed.

“On Hammersmith Bridge at low tide when the water’s clear enough you can look down and see what looks like seaweed fronds waving in the current. Except it’s not seaweed — it’s all the wet wipes.” Thames Water said it was a “myth” that wet wipes are flushable or biodegradable and highlighted that they must be binned correctly to avoid clogging up waterways and sewers.

Hundreds of Londoners took part in clean-ups from Barking to Wembley during London Rivers Week last month. The Government said in May that its plan to eliminate “avoidable” plastic waste in the next 25 years “includes single use products like wet wipes”.

Nearly 40 million cubic metres of raw sewage spills into the Thames each year, according to Port of London Authority data. It happens when heavy rain overwhelms the sewers. Recently, enough to fill more than 50 Olympic swimming pools entered the water at Hammersmith. It is a problem the super-sewer now being built is meant to help fix.
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