New research [1] by Bangor University and Friends of the Earth has found microplastic pollution in some of Britain’s most iconic and remote rivers and lakes.

The study, believed to be the first of its kind, looked at ten sites – including waterways in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, lakes in the Lake District, a wetland and Welsh reservoir – and found microplastics in all of them.[2]

Friends of the Earth and Dr Christian Dunn, of Bangor University (who led the research) say the findings suggest that microplastics should now be considered as an emergent contaminant – and that routine monitoring of all UK waters must now take place.[3]

Using a fluorescence lighting system, researchers were able to identify and count microplastic pollutants (less than 5 mm in size) – such as plastic fragments, fibres and film – per litre of water.

The preliminary findings revealed microplastic pollution levels ranging from over a 1,000 pieces of plastic per litre in the river Tame in Greater Manchester [4], to 2.4 pieces per litre in Loch Lomond.

Last year, a report by Eunomia for Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland [5], estimated that huge quantities of microplastic pollution are entering UK waterways from a number of sources every year. The key sources of pollution include car tyres (7,000-19,000 tonnes), clothing (150-2,900 tonnes), plastic pellets used to make plastic items (200-5,900 tonnes) and paints on buildings and road markings (1,400-3,700 tonnes).

Further work is now essential to fully investigate any health risks from microplastics – to humans and ecosystems – so that “safe” levels can be ascertained, and removal and mitigation processes can be put in place.

The waterways surveyed (including pieces of plastic per litre of water) were:

• River Thames, London (84.1)
• Chester reedbed (7.6)
• Ullswater, Lake District (29.5)
• River Irwell, Salford, Greater Manchester (84.8)
• River Tame, Tameside, Greater Manchester (>1,000)
• River Blackwater, Essex (15.1)
• Falls of Dochart, Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park (3.3)
• Loch Lomond, Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park (2.4)
• Afon Cegin – river; North Wales (76.9)
• Llyn Cefni – reservoir; Anglesey, Wales (43.2 )

Dr Christian Dunn, of Bangor University, said:

“It was more than a little startling to discover microplastics were present in even the most remote sites we tested, and quite depressing they were there in some of our country’s most iconic locations. I’m sure Wordsworth would not be happy to discover his beloved Ullswater in the Lake District was polluted with plastic.

“These initial findings, from our team at Bangor University with Friends of the Earth, show that we have to start taking the issue of plastic in our inland waters seriously.

“Plastic is polluting our rivers, lakes and wetlands in a similar way as pollutants such as so-called ‘emerging contaminants’ like pharmaceutical waste, personal care products and pesticides.

“As with all emerging contaminants we don’t yet fully know the dangers they present to wildlife and ecosystems, or even human health, and to what levels they occur in all our water systems.

“But it’s now clear that microplastics should be considered a serious emerging contaminant and there needs to be a concerted effort to regularly monitor all our inland waters for them.

“Our method provides a straightforward and low-cost way of doing this so we now need to roll it out and see if our preliminary results are just the tip of the iceberg.”

Friends of the Earth Scotland Head of Campaigns Mary Church commented,

“The widespread contamination of our rivers and lochs with microplastic pollution is a major concern, and people will understandably want to know what impact this could have on our health and environment.

“Plastic pollution is everywhere – from hedgerows to rivers, on our highest mountains and at the depths of the ocean.

“Plastic pollution is all too often simply one end of a long, environmentally damaging journey from resource extraction to ending up as microplastics in our waterways. The plastics crisis is intrinsically linked to the climate crisis, with the vast majority of plastics derived from fossil fuels, including fracked gas.

“Scotland must tackle plastic pollution at source, preventing its creation by getting to grips with industrial plastic pollution from manufacturing sites, and developing a circular economy. The Scottish Government should also continue positive actions so far that help to cut down on our use of unnecessary single-use plastic items such as straws, cotton buds and coffee cups. The forthcoming Deposit Return Scheme will also make a big difference to recycling rates for bottles and cans. ”

Although there have been a number of studies on plastic pollution in the marine environment and some on the sediment of waterways, less research has been conducted on microplastic pollution in actual water samples from inland systems in the UK. The methodology used in this study offers a simple low-cost way of collecting and analysing samples, allowing regular nationwide monitoring of waterways.

1. The results are preliminary findings which will form part of a scientific paper to be sent for peer-review. The research was led by Dr Christian Dunn, a senior lecturer in the School of Natural Sciences at Bangor University, in North Wales, UK. www.bangor.ac.uk/natural-sciences/staff/christian-dunn

2. This research was carried out in conjunction with Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The results have been shared with Friends of the Earth Scotland ahead of publication.

3. Emergent Contaminants: Some pollutants in inland waterways are regularly monitored to ensure levels don’t exceed “safe” concentrations. Other pollutants – emergent contaminants – such as pharmaceutical waste, personal care products and illicit drugs are only just becoming accepted as issues and work is needed investigate these problems.

4. Last year the University of Manchester examined the microplastics in river sediments from 40 sites across Greater Manchester. One site on the River Tame at Denton, had the highest levels so far recorded anywhere in the world. https://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/uk-rivers-microplastics/

5. Car tyres responsible for thousands of tonnes of UK plastic pollution | Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland press release: https://friendsoftheearth.uk/plastics/car-tyres-responsible-thousands-tonnes-uk-plastic-pollution

6. Friends of the Earth Scotland is
* Scotland’s leading environmental campaigning organisation
* An independent Scottish charity with a network of thousands of supporters and active local groups across Scotland
* Part of the largest grassroots environmental network in the world, uniting over 2 million supporters, 75 national member groups, and some 5,000 local activist groups.