‘Barnes is a small but perfectly formed Thames-side village in London, great for a stroll whilst discovering excellent local restaurants and boutiques, or simply relaxing by the river.’ This is how Barnes is described on the Visit London website and it’s clear that its position alongside the River Thames is a key attraction for visitors and residents alike.

But as I have written elsewhere, the Thames is cherished and abused in equal measure. For every person that enjoys a stroll along the river and watching a heron flying just above the water, there will be someone else who thinks the River is a giant bin in which to throw their lunch packaging.

Today I have read in The Times: ‘The number of pieces of litter found per 100 metres of beach fell from 718 in 2017 to 425 this year. The results are from the annual Great British Beach Clean by the Marine Conservation Society. The study shows a consistent downward trend, with 601 pieces collected per 100m in 2018 and 558 in 2019. Greater awareness of the damage caused to marine creatures by plastic litter could help to account for the decline, the society said.’

Or could it be the work of volunteers who are collecting litter from our rivers and preventing it from reaching the sea?

The Barnes Tidy Towpath Group

The stretch of river that Barnes faces onto is regularly cleaned by a group of volunteers that formed three years ago when they decided to clean-up the towpath, which has proved to validate the so-called ‘broken windows theory’ that asserts: “that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.”

Petra (L) and Ann (R) who started the Barnes Tidy Towpath Group 3 years ago

Petra, who is one of the group leaders and also a volunteer, explained that it was volunteers, who regularly cleared-up the litter, who set the tone for Barnes and three years later it seems that the towpath is now treated with some respect and much more litter finds its way into the bins.

Those same volunteers now venture onto the foreshore of the Thames at low tide and pick-up all manner of unpleasant debris.

On this particular stretch of the Thames plastic bottles are not the main offender, it’s single-use cups, which have of course have been in greater use in recent months since coffee shops have prevented customers from using their own.

Micro plastics

And it’s not just the public either, “We usually find fat bergs full of cotton buds, dental floss, tampons and condoms.” says Ann, who is also a group leader and volunteer. “There is also huge amount of visible micro plastics These are plastics that have started to break down and are now small pieces of 0.5cm or less “which the birds see and think is food so they start eating them” another volunteer explains. One of greatest manmade disasters of our time, states the Natural History Museum.

A crisp and bright day in November, just hours before the second lockdown across England, nine volunteers and two team leaders scoured several hundred yards of the foreshore.

Two hours after starting the group had collected and cleared:

  • Thousands of pieces of micro plastics
  • 103 Single use plastic cups
  • 46 plastic bottles
  • 12 glass bottles
  • 11 cans
  • Too many bottle caps to count
  • Earbud sticks, food wrappers, plastic straws, a mop bucket, 3 footballs & rubbish bin cover.

The presence of tampon applicators, condoms, dental floss and the like was evidence of recent Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO) which is the release of sewage into the river and the Environment Agency states: are a necessary part of the existing sewerage system, preventing sewage from flooding homes and businesses.

All of these unnatural objects for a river filled 37 bags, and that is nowhere near close to a record, which, given the group meets about once a month, is staggering.

For more information about the Barnes Tidy Towpath Group visit their website here.