A morning with volunteers from Thames21

The River Thames holds mythical status and been celebrated in thousands of books over hundreds of years. The Thames is a route through the capital and into the heart of England (or vice versa), it is bejewelled with history along its banks and still is a place for work, recreation, and calling ‘home’.

The 215 miles of the River Thames has played a leading role in the history of Britain and been instrumental in shaping our collective fates. Yet, unlike the castle walls that it laps up against, the Thames has not been so pristinely preserved, or even much respected. We read in Household Words (1858) ‘The Thames which, before reaching London, is polluted by the drainage from seven hundred thousand people, and in London deposits the filth of hundreds of thousands upon mud-banks exposed daily at low water, and in these hot days, festering at the heart of the metropolis.’

Sanitation has much improved since the 1800s but pollution still exists. Despite the number of litter bins and regular collections of household waste, an alarming amount of rubbish still finds it way into the Thames every day and we have to assume that much of it also finds it way from the river into the North Sea and into our food chains.

In mid September I joined a group of volunteers from the charity, Thames21 who regularly survey, and clean up, a small section of the river’s edge at a North Greenwich slipway in the shadow of Canary Wharf.

I spoke with Helen Stoddard, a volunteer Thames21 team leader, on the phone prior to meeting the other volunteers on a bright Sunday morning; I wanted to know why people got out of bed to count bits of plastic washed-up by the river? “I think it’s mainly local people who can see the problem and want to do something about it.” Helen replied “And it’s mainly women who come and help” she continued.

This is something I have witnessed previously – it being mainly women who have the drive and determination to make the environment better and are willing to get their hands dirty to make change happen. All the more reason why we should have more women in politics perhaps?

When I met the group on that Sunday morning it was no surprise that it was all women who had turned out, although Colin, a passerby who saw them working, decided to abandon his bike ride and get stuck-in for half an hour as well.

For 90 minutes the group worked in the rising temperatures of late summer. They split into two groups: three of them diligently surveyed sections of the site whilst the others filled bags full of litter.

Clare, a regular Thames21 volunteer, brought along her daughter Charlotte, and together they collected and counted nearly 500 nitrous oxide canisters. As metals containers these can actually be recycled but it seems it’s not easy to find anywhere that will take them. Designers are even up-cycling them as chandeliers. Clare told me they regularly collect over 400 canisters a month along a stretch not more than 100ft; the mind boggles as to how many are littered along the whole length of the Thames.

Thames21 survey results for pollution
Thames21 volunteer looking for plastic pollution

20 single-use branded coffee cups were amongst the litter, including two that had been left there that very morning by people who clearly didn’t care that they could end up at sea, and were obviously blind to the litter bin just a few feet away.

marine pollution
Plastic pollution

49 plastic bottles were counted. Then there were the cotton buds, bottle tops, a deflated plastic ball, cable ties, cigarette butts, and straws. What could be recycled through home waste collection was taken by another volunteer, also called Clare, and everything else was bagged and left by the litter bin.

Plastic pollution
Thames21 Volunteer

Helen organises the survey and clean-up every month and it seems there is very little change month-to-month. The survey results are entered into a larger database to build a picture of the total waste collected along the Thames. The Blue Planet effect seems not to have reached London.

If it wasn’t for these volunteers who want to make a difference, than we can assume at least 600 plastic bottles a year would still be littering the river or the river edge, with a fair proportion ending up on their long journey to becoming micro plastics at sea, waiting to be ingested by future generations. And this is just a very small stretch of a 215 mile river. In July The BBC quoted a report that stated the Thames had ‘some of the highest recorded levels of microplastics for any river in the world.’


Thames21 has established community groups all over London who are helping to keep the Thames and its tributaries safe and clean. If you are interested in helping then get in touch with your local River Action Group through the Thames21 website.