Campaigns fronted by environmentalists like David Attenborough have shown the plight of our oceans as plastic piles up.
The vision of a plastic-choked whale calf being pulled along by its mourning mother will live long in the memory.
But the inland waterways of the West Midlands are a breeding ground for a huge proportion of that waste.
A staggering 80 per cent of marine debris starts its journey to the oceans inland.
Now the Canal & River Trust – a charity that cares for 2,000 miles of British waterways – has, in conjunction with Coventry University, undertaken a detailed analysis of the plastics and litter found on our canals and rivers.
Its research has found that there are 24 million items of plastic and other pieces of litter being dropped or blown onto our waterways every year.
14 million items (59 per cent) are plastics such as bags, bottles, disposable cups and food wrappers and £1 million a year is being spent in dealing with it.
Britain exists with thousands of miles of inter-connecting inland waterways, meaning plastic that is dropped far inland can end up in our canals and rivers and drift out to sea, polluting the oceans.
“Unfortunately, these canals and rivers are inadvertently acting as ‘plastic highways’, transporting rubbish from towns and cities across the UK out to sea,” says Richard Parry, chief executive of the Canal & River Trust. “We can change this, but we must act now by taking action locally.”
Teams on two regional canals are working to do their bit.
Situated on the Prees Branch of the Llangollen Canal, Whixall Marina in Shropshire became a new base for Anglo Welsh Waterway Holidays earlier this year.
Since then, the Anglo Welsh team have worked to encourage canal tourists to help improve the environmental condition of the waterways, as well as introducing measures to reduce the potential for plastic pollution.
“I think we’re all aware now of the effect that plastic is having on the planet in general,” says Andy Brickland, Anglo Welsh’s hire fleet manager at Whixall.
“Most of what is in the canal probably ends up in the river, in the seas – it flows through. The advice we give to people is, number one, lets start to reduce what we’re actually bringing onto the boats in the first place. It could be that you bring bags for life from somewhere rather than buying the bags in the shops.
“Obviously then we get to the bit about where you don’t throw plastic into the side of the canal. You do your bit, put it in the bags that we provide, and when you get to the recycling locations around the canal, that’s what you use.”
The Whixall team are also actively encouraging canal users to help with any existing plastic debris.
“If everyone can just take on board the fact that if you see something floating, pick it up, put it in your own bag, it just helps that little bit. One piece every day would help so much.”
So far holiday makers and canal residents based at Whixall have been supportive of the message Andy and the team have been trying to promote.
“They’re all on board with it,” he said. “The residents are, rightly so, quite proud of what they’ve got here.
“They’ve got a nice location – they don’t want to see plastic and litter floating around, so they do pick it out when it comes in.
“The people who are on the canal generally do want to improve their surroundings, because its a lovely environment to be in.”
And the summer months brought particular success in improvements to this environment.
“Over the summer we noticed that people have become much more aware of the impact of plastic on the environment,” continues Andy. “They are making more use of the recycling points available at bases and marinas along the waterways and are leaving behind much less waste.
“One family who took out an Anglo Welsh boat made plastic collection a bit of game and went ‘fishing for plastic’. They eventually brought back an entire black bag full of plastic from their trip. When the marina first opened in the spring there was plastic in the reeds and on the tow paths, but that has mostly gone now which is a vast improvement.”
In line with the advice and encouragement the Anglo Welsh team give to canal users at Whixall, the Canal & River Trust is currently promoting its Plastics Challenge.
This encourages anybody visiting a waterway to simply pick up one piece of discarded plastic, photograph themselves with it and share this on social media with the hashtag #PlasticsChallenge, then recycle the plastic correctly.
The trust states that “if everyone who visits one of our canals or rivers picked up just one piece of plastic, the waterways would be clear within a year”.
And the team at another Anglo Welsh base have noticed a positive difference to canal hygiene since encouraging users of the waterways to follow the trust’s concept.
Kevin Yarwood, Anglo Welsh base manager at Great Haywood, on the junction of the Trent & Mersey and Staffordshire & Worcestershire canals in Staffordshire, says: “We are always encouraging our customers to use recycling points along the canal and to follow the Canal & River Trust’s plastic challenge. We have even provided customers’ children with fishing nets so they can collect any floating rubbish.”
The team at Great Haywood have also made environmental strides through the products they sell to holidaymakers and canal residents in their base shop.
“We use and supply Poddy cleaning products at our yard and on our boats – cleaning products that are up to 90 per cent bio making them environmentally and aquatic-life friendly,” adds Kevin. “We sell these products in our shop and have sold many to passing boaters, and also to our customers, who after having their holiday and using the products on-board, have bought them to take home.”
Work to reduce plastic pollution on Britain’s waterways has put the spotlight on their environmental significance. This in turn has highlighted the fact that they can actually be enjoyed with a relatively low general cost to the environment, and in particular the carbon footprint of narrow boats and canal barges.
“The environmental impact of travel – especially flying – is understood more widely and many more people are now looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint,” Andy adds.
“Canal boats use around a third of the fuel to that of a car, and an average narrowboat holiday for a family of four has approximately a twenty times smaller carbon footprint than a family of four taking a two-hour flight to reach their holiday destination.”
The Canal & River Trust is naturally keen for people to be able to experience such time on the water for generations to come, and in the best environmental conditions possible.
And in a wider context in this time of planetary ecological conciousness, its message to the public is simple.
“We can all make a difference,” says Richard Parry.
“Every action that someone takes locally to improve the canal or river in their neighbourhood can have a global impact on our oceans.”
Tips from Anglo Welsh Waterway Holidays on reducing the plastic waste you might generate on a narrowboat holiday and the amount entering our waterways:
Avoid products with microbeads. Much of the plastic polluting our waterways and oceans is microplastics which derive from bigger items breaking down, but also from products like face wash and toothpaste. Try to avoid using cosmetics with ‘polypropylene’ or ‘polyethylene’ on the ingredients list and go for natural biodegradable alternatives.
Bring a refillable flask. If you stop off to buy a coffee somewhere on your canal barge holiday you won’t need a disposable cup, for which there are limited recycling centres.
Reduce your use of plastic bottles. You will need to have bottled drinking water on board your boat (though you can use water from the boat’s tank to boil and make a cup of tea), so we suggest bringing one large bottle or canteen, decanting it into reusable cups and topping up at water points.
Bring your own shopping bags. Remember to pack your re-useable bags every time you shop and avoid products with excess packaging.
Separate your recyclables and make use of recycling facilities. Most canalside rubbish compounds only accept boaters’ bagged domestic rubbish, but there are an increasing number of boaters’ recycling points.
Bag all rubbish. Make sure the bags are tied securely so that they can’t spill open. Only dispose of your bagged domestic rubbish inside bins marked domestic waste and don’t forget to close the lid.
Don’t dump it! If the bins are full, keep your rubbish securely on board until the next available waste disposal point.
Avoid leaving bagged rubbish next to a litter bin. It’s not a collection point for boater’s rubbish and can be an invitation for animals to break into the bags looking for something to eat, spreading litter everywhere.
Every little helps. Pledge to pick up and dispose of at least one piece of canalside litter a day while on your narrowboat holiday.