"Horrific" extent of River Lea plastic pollution at Hackney Marshes

Plastic rubbish embedded and woven into trees on the river Lea at Hackney marshes.

Plastic rubbish embedded and woven into trees on the river Lea at Hackney marshes. - Credit: Marcus Bastel

Concerned residents spoken at their shock at the amount of plastic rubbish embedded in vegetation along the River Lea at Hackney Marshes, made more visible this time of year when trees are leafless.  

The plastic pollution - which includes decaying plastic sacks, bags, sanitary pads, trolleys, mattresses, a hose and wet wipes - stretches along the river banks near Hackney Marshes Centre.

But climate campaigner Julian Kirby says the rubbish is only a fraction of what has been swept to sea.

He told the Gazette: "In a way, the trees here have done the oceans a favour because they have stopped all of the waste, that is really unsightly and horrific, from going out to sea.

"But, most of it has been swept right out to sea. So you can imagine hundreds of times what we are seeing here went out down the river and its now choking the whales, the fish, the turtles and all the rest of it."

The Hackney resident, who previously led environmental organisation Friends of the Earth's plastic pollution campaign and now works with Plastic Free Hackney,  said "nothing has happened" since a Thames study concluded that 60 per cent of litter would disappear from the Thames basin if the capital moved away from single-use items. 

The study was conducted in 2017 and 2018 by The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) and charity Thames21.

Rubbish found along the Lea's banks include plastic sacks, bags, wet wipes, sanitary pads and tobacco pouches.

Rubbish found along the Lea's banks include plastic sacks, bags, wet wipes, sanitary pads, tobacco pouches and many hard to recognise strips of plastic broken down by weathering processes. - Credit: Marcus Bastel

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It involved a series of river cleans in the Thames and its tributaries including the River Lea. On the tributaries volunteers found that 78pc of items picked up were single use, with an average of 219 pieces of rubbish collected for every 100 metre surveyed.

Julian and river campaign groups like London Waterkeeper believe water companies such as Thames Water are responsible for some of the waste, due to storm drains not being managed properly and sewage water being allowed to flow into the river after heavy rains. 

Climate and plastics campaigner Julian Kirby at Hackney Marshes. 

Climate and plastics campaigner Julian Kirby at Hackney Marshes. - Credit: Marcus Bastel

A spokesperson for Thames Water said two teams of engineers visited the area in Hackney Marshes and found no evidence of sewage pollution.

There are also issues with people leaving litter behind when visiting the park and plastic sacks discarded from industrial sites, but, Julian says, the only real way to deal with the problem is "at it's source" - to make people use less plastic in the first place by regulating it. 

He says the only way to help such a "massive" and "pervasive problem" caused by many different sources is with a systemic approach. 

"Just a little ban here and a plastic bag charge there, kind of thing - it doesn't even understand the scale of the problem," he added. 

The campaigner warned of the harm caused by microplastics, which are broken-down plastics ranging from 5mm to nano sizes of a thousandth of a milometer, explaining how so much of the plastic in the environment is not visible. 

The Environment Agency has said it has not received any reports and is not investigating the plastic pollution in the River Lea. But it said the stretch of water at Hackney Marshes is the Canal and River Trust's responsibility. 

Bits of plastic on Hackney Marshes tree.

Some of the discoloured plastic is bound so closely to the area's vegetation it is easily camouflaged. - Credit: Marcus Bastel

A spokesperson from the agency said: "If it was to do with sewage water it would be down to the water company or it would be down [to whoever] owns the land to clear. Normally the land owner or  where its come from."

They said the agency would get involved if the pollution was causing damage to wildlife 

The Canal and River Trust has been contacted for comment. 

Hackney Marshes Group is holding a free public meeting on March 23, to discuss The State of the river Lea at Hackney Marshes.  

To register visit www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/hackney-marshes-the-state-of-the-lea-tickets-146635305145

Plastic pollution on river Lea tree.

Julian also warns about microplastics and nano-plastics which pervade the environment. - Credit: Marcus Bastel

A plastic bag floats in the river Lea. 

A plastic bag floats in the river Lea. - Credit: Marcus Bastel