The 'river guardians' fighting to clean up the world's most plastic-polluted waterway

I’m knee-deep in the river Tame in Stalybridge, 15 miles east of Manchester. Beside me is Woz Andrew, a local fly-fishing guide. After climbing down a flight of stone steps from road level – hollowed by a century of boots and a remnant of this river’s industrial past – we have made our way slowly across, careful not to trap our ankles between the slippery boulders of the riverbed.

This river has been in the news a lot recently. Research by Manchester University’s department of geography revealed last month that it has the highest recorded concentration of microplastic waste not only in the UK, but in the entire world. With 517,000 particles per square metre, the Tame outscored the Incheon-Gyeonggi beaches in South Korea, Lake Chiusi in Italy and the Pearl river estuary in Hong Kong. The story went everywhere.

I ask Andrew how it feels to be a resident of Tameside and wake up one morning to this dubious accolade. “You see plastic in the trees and on the banks, and all the sanitary products,” he says, “but I had no idea there was that much of it in the riverbed itself – that was a surprise.”

He was certainly right about the plastic on the banks. As we’d crossed the river the fisherman in me had spotted a nice tongue of flow coming down the far bank that will have scoured out some depth in the riverbed. This deep water is where the trout are likely to lie this early in the season, so I sink a weighted fly into the flow to see what happens.

The River Tame has the highest recorded concentration of microplastic waste not only in the UK, but in the entire world

Credit:
Paul Cooper

But as I contemplate this technical challenge, above the watery world of the trout the scrub of the bankside is strewn with waste – from soft drinks bottles to car bumpers and everything in between.

I ask Andrew how the river is fishing. “Go back two or three years and you could catch 60 fish in a four- or five-hour session,” he says. “But more recently it is getting tougher. The numbers of fish are dwindling, the bigger fish aren’t around.”

Sixty fish in a session? That’s guide talk for you. While I start to put in a few casts and see if I can fool just one, Mike Duddy from the local rivers trust is posing for photographs just behind us. For the past five years, Duddy has been the self-appointed defender of the Manchester rivers, mobilising volunteer “river guardians” to turn up mob-handed for litter picks, and generally making a nuisance of himself to the Environment Agency and the water companies, holding them to account to improve the local environment.

This has all been done on a voluntary basis, but from this month he becomes a salaried project manager within a reorganised rivers trust for the North West region – the Mersey Rivers Trust. So there is hope for the Tame, which runs for 30 miles from Denshaw Moor on the West Yorkshire border all the way to the river Mersey in Stockport.

It was David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II that made plastic pollution in the oceans a topic of urgent global concern, but it was the recent research from Manchester that highlighted the plight of the world’s inland waterways – and how much plastic was getting there.

Mike Duddy

Mike Duddy

Credit:
Paul Cooper

Microplastics can either enter the river as microplastic pollution, which can be fibres from our synthetic clothes entering the waste water system, or “nurdles”, tiny pellets that are the “building blocks” from which all our plastic stuff is made. Or it can be bigger plastic waste that is broken down in the river.

As Duddy puts it: “The river bed acts like a huge grinding stone. Put a big piece of plastic in the river in Tameside and by the time it’s got to Stockport it is in 10,000 tiny pieces.”

As a lifelong angler who remembers his local river running as something resembling a sewer, the irony of this insidious form of pollution is not lost on Duddy. The Tame benefited from anti-pollution efforts in recent decades, which helped bring in larger numbers of trout, perch, gudgeon and roach. “We had generations where the river was polluted with industrial waste, and we are now patting ourselves on the back for doing a great job getting rid of it,” he says. “But here we are again, polluting the river with a form of pollution that no one is even testing for yet.”

The harm plastic is doing to living organisms – including humans – is unclear

That plastic is present in our rivers in large quantities is not in doubt. But what harm it is doing to living organisms – including humans – is less clear.

Alice Horton is an ecotoxicologist with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. It seems that it is still “early doors” for plastics in the environment. She tells me that the research is so far inconclusive – in the lab, some plastics have some effects on some organisms. Then there is the perennial problem that observations in the controlled conditions of a laboratory are one thing, but out there in the open river with all its messy variables, quite another. But everybody is aware that there is a potential problem here, and the water companies “are coming to the academics for advice”.

“People never really thought about the fact that large plastic pollution that is everywhere in the environment will ultimately become small plastic pollution that you can’t see but is still there,” says Horton. “And once it gets to this very small scale, it is difficult, if not impossible, to get rid of it.”

She talks about a continuum of plastic breakdown; from big pieces of plastic to small pieces to microplastics to nanoplastics.

“Nanoplastics can cross the cell membranes in the body, so if something like that is eaten or breathed in, it can end up within the circulatory systems, and the tissues, and in the brain,” says Horton. “That’s where you start to see effects on things like hormone production, behaviour and reproduction.”

river cleaning

Mike Duddy has been the self-appointed defender of the Manchester rivers, mobilising volunteer “river guardians” to turn up mob-handed for litter picks

Credit:
Paul Cooper

Which is why it might be a good idea to try to remove the plastic from our rivers while it is still big enough. This is where Duddy and his river guardians come in. “If you scratch the surface, create a group that people want to join and feel that they belong to, lots of people will want to get out and volunteer, and do something for the local environment,” he says.

But the anglers of the Tame feel that theirs is the forgotten river, neglected by the Environment Agency and the water company United Utilities. They feel their river lives in the shadow of the more fashionable Goyt, which it eventually joins, before they both enter the Mersey. But while the Goyt flows down through a string of commuter towns and suburbs, the Tame runs through more working-class areas.

Duddy claims that the whole region has been ignored. “If you look around the country at what different rivers trusts have received, the North West – Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Cheshire – are a long way down the pecking order,” he says.

Chris Clarke, a local coarse angler who has fished the river since he was six, puts the Tame’s plight more starkly: “You can walk all the way from Delph where the Tame starts, all the way down to Stockport, and you can see anything that goes into the toilet is going into the river,” he says.

But despite the recent publicity, and the plastic and the pollution, these angling men remain fiercely loyal to their river, in a way that probably only river people will understand.

Andrew tells me about fishing the upper reaches of the Tame, going out towards the moorland of Yorkshire. “You could blindfold someone, put them in the river, take it off and ask them where they were and they would say they were in Wales or Scotland,” he says. “Between the urban conurbations, some of the landscape is stunning.”

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