Cleaning the river

The Port of London Authority & Thames 21 leading the fight for a cleaner and safer river

Since the much quoted judgement by the Natural History Museum in 1957 that the Thames was “biologically dead” and incapable of supporting life, a lot has happened. The first changes began soon after that as a result of much discussion and soul-searching.

In a long, wordy, and complex debate in the House of Lords on December 3rd, 1959, on ‘The Pollution of Rivers and Estuaries’ there was an interesting remark by one Viscount Simon: “The natural channels for the disposal of waste in a country like ours are undoubtedly our rivers.” Referring to earlier comments that some of the UK’s rivers were “like an open drain”, he goes on to say “In my view, that is exactly what a river ought to be; but it should be a clean and healthy drain, not a foul one.” He accepts that in a heavily built up area there might not be sufficient oxygen in a river to accomplish the breaking down of human waste and therefore the construction of sewage works would be necessary. However, he adds: “…our rivers are still capable of looking after quite a lot of organic waste, and it would be wasting the value of our rivers as a national asset […] if we did not give them something to do.” Well, that’s a view that evolved. Luckily.

Following on from this, the 1960s saw a gradual improvement and eventual repair of London’s Victorian sewerage system which had been badly damaged during the Blitz. And now, as many of you know, Tideway are constructing a 25 kilometre super sewer under the Thames to serve London and to deal with the raw sewage spills that can still make their way into the river after heavy rainfall. So the quality of Thames water, now already supporting a wide variety of wildlife, will become even cleaner. However, there are other hazards including floating debris of all kinds, and the ever growing scourge of plastic pollution.

The first of these, floating debris such as logs, tree trunks or old railway sleepers, which can cause serious damage to vessels on the tidal Thames, is covered by the Port of London Authority’s Driftwood Service. And first in their line of defence are their Passive Driftwood Collectors, known as PDCs, conceived about twenty years ago. Fixed “at carefully chosen points on the river, where the current and tidal stream will carry the most driftwood they trap the floating debris.” This is then collected for recycling and disposal by their Driftwood craft.

Port of London’s Passive Driftwood Collector at Westminster, marking their partnership with Thames 21

Their annual haul is impressive but rather concerning. “Each year we pull more than 400 tonnes of assorted floating rubbish from the river including branches and tree trunks, plastic bottles and traffic cones.” They also recover bicycles, supermarket trolleys, and cars parked too close to the river swept into the water by a rising tide.

The two Driftwood craft that I’ve seen most often are the simply named Driftwood II and Driftwood III. As well as their primary function being the “collection of driftwood and other debris, they are equipped with hydraulic cranes, burning gear, and salvage pumps”, to deal with emergency maintenance or repairs. Each has a Dory tender in tow, either Ray or Tyburn, to allow flexibility of movement for the crew.

DRIFTWOOD III heading past old St. Thomas’ Hospital, Westminster
DRIFTWOOD II and RAY approaching Westminster Bridge
PLA tug IMPULSE pushing an empty debris collection barge upstream
A loaded PLA barge being pushed downstream
Punchy PLA tug IMPULSE
DRIFTWOOD II heading towards moorings at Lambeth Bridge
The crew of DRIFTWOOD II attending to M.V. SUERITA close to Lambeth Bridge

The *giant* of the fleet, London Titan, and I’ve only seen her a couple of times, is sturdy enough to undertake a whole variety of work in the outer estuary, and also “squat and shallow enough to negotiate the Thames bridges as far upriver as Richmond”, where she can be used among other tasks to “haul wreckage from the riverbed.”

LONDON TITAN at work close to Westminster Bridge in January 2018

The second concern over the state of the river is the increased amount of plastic pollution. In 1994 the Port of London Authority teamed up with Thames 21, an independent charity dedicated to the environmental improvement of rivers and canals in and around London. And one of the several tasks their partnership has set itself is the removal of litter present everywhere along the waterways. Their Report on Plastic Pollution in the Tidal Thames highlights the problem. A particular scourge of the Thames foreshore is the use of wet wipes, some of which have accumulated into large mounds that, because they’re mixed in with river mud, look natural. Paul Hyman, Founder and Director of the stand up paddle boarding group Active 360 highlighted the problem for Thames 21 during a campaign back in 2016, “There is one very persistent problem that is spoiling the enjoyment and the safety of watersports and that problem is litter.” And that hasn’t changed. In 2018 he co-founded In The Drink to raise awareness among riverside pubs and bars, by promoting the use of re-usable alternatives to replace single use plastic.

During the Covid pandemic, there’s actually been an increase in the amount of plastic drink bottles, mugs, and containers dropped along the banks or into the river. This alarming issue is underlined in the latest River Thames Survey by Thames 21, published on December 21st, 2020, which also notes a new specifically Covid related phenomenon that “plastic gloves & masks were found on seventy percent of the stretches of the river monitored…”

Kew Bridge Drawdock littered with plastic refuse © Paul Hyman
An organised litter pick on the foreshore opposite Greenwich Power Station © Thames 21
A Thames 21 team and members of the PLA stand around a yellow litter cage, on a socially distanced litter pick at Gravesend © Port of LondonAuthority

Several hundred clean-ups are organised every year, and volunteers give their time to gather the rubbish and place it into steel cages provided by the PLA, which then sees to their disposal. They recover “an estimated 800 cubic metres of litter and rubbish from the foreshore” every year. Among the unusual items recovered on their events are handguns, motorbikes and fridges.

As you walk along a stretch of the river that you know well, particularly at low tide, you’ll appreciate how much litter accumulates in certain places and how there’s more of it than before. A certain amount of it is collected by organised litter picks but as A J McConville, coordinator of Thames 21’s plastic monitoring programme, rightly says: “The health of the Thames should not depend on volunteer clean-ups. We need to turn off the plastic tap at source.” In fact, we need better education. Much better education…

Latest News from Thames 21
Obituary of Celia Hensman MBE 1936 -2021, founder of Thames 21, published on January 6, 2021

Sources and further information
With thanks to the PLA, Paul Hyman, and Thames 21, for their help and permission to use their images.
The Port of London Authority
Driftwood Service
Thames 21
Active 360
In the Drink