Plastic in every river we tested

We took to the UK’s rivers to investigate microplastic pollution and we found plastic everywhere.


In spring earlier this year, we took to the UK’s rivers to investigate microplastic pollution.

Each river was so different, from the Lord of the Rings-esqe River Wye which dances along the borders of Wales and England, to the River Aire in Leeds city centre, surrounded by shops and cafes.

But the common thread of every river we tested was that we found plastic in every. single. one.

Plastic Pollution on River Wear

Plastic pollution by the River Wear near Chester-le-Street, UK © Steve Morgan / Greenpeace

With 2 million microplastics per square kilometre the River Mersey was proportionally more polluted than even the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – widely considered to be the most polluted expanse of water on earth. When processing the samples, I remember thinking that this was an outrageous amount of microplastics, just hundreds and hundreds of microplastics nestled among the twigs, leaves and feathers that were also making their way down the river.

During this campaign we witnessed voles eating plastic, swans using it to build their nests, and caddisfly larva using it to make their protective casings.

Here’s a quick summary of our findings: (you can read the full report here)

  • All 13 UK rivers tested contained microplastics.
  • A total of 1,271 pieces of plastic, ranging in size from straw and bottle-top fragments to tiny microbeads less than 1mm across.
  • The River Mersey was proportionally more polluted than the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – containing equivalent to 2 million pieces of microplastic per square km.
  • Five out of 13 rivers contained microbeads – which were partially banned in 2017!
  • More than half the rivers tested contained plastic pellets called ‘nurdles’, which are used as a raw material in the production of plastic products.

How did we do it?

We used a manta net (resembling a manta ray, hence the name) to collect surface water samples across 13 rivers in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. We tested a minimum of two locations on each river and once the sample was retrieved and jarred up, they were sent for analysis at our Greenpeace laboratory at the University of Exeter.

Plastic samples

Plastic sample from the River Mersey. © Alex Hyde / Greenpeace

So, what to do?

Later this year, the government will lay the first Environment Bill in 20 years – this is our opportunity to turn the tap of plastic pollution off at source with radical, ambitious plastic reduction targets, and an independent watchdog to enforce these targets.

We know nature is struggling, in fact the UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world, and globally 1 million species face extinction due to the strain of climate change, pollution and other threats.


What's next?