Plastic Bottles, Not Bags, Cause the Worst Pollution to Europe's Waterways

According to new research from Plastic Oceans UK and the Earthwatch Institute, plastic bottles account for 14 percent of all plastic waste.
Photo via Adobe Stock. 

We all hate plastic, right? That evil (whispers: quite useful) substance that strangles baby turtles and pollutes marine life. You know it’s bad, so you always try to take a reusable plastic bag to the supermarket, ready to brandish the orange receptacle at the checkout like an award for casual environmentalism. Go you!

But halt those celebrations for just one second. While UK legislation on plastic bags has reduced their usage by 86 percent, this is only one tiny part of our gargantuan plastic problem. According to a new report from charities Earthwatch Institute and Plastic Oceans UK, plastic bottles are the worst polluters of Europe’s waterways. The “Plastic Rivers: reducing the plastic pollution on our doorstep” report, released this week, states that plastic bottles make up 14 percent of all plastic waste found in rivers. Eek.


Plastic bags, conversely, only make up 1 percent of plastic pollution in freshwater rivers and streams, thanks to initiatives like the 5p plastic bag charge, which was introduced in 2014 and requires all large retailers to charge customers for single-use plastic carrier bags.

Cigarette butts and food packaging such as crisp packets are also hazards to Europe’s waterways, making up 9 percent and 12 percent of plastic waste respectively.

To get to the bottom of which plastics are polluting our waterways, Earthwatch Institute and Plastic Oceans UK researchers conducted nine studies on different rivers in the UK and Europe, and collected data based on the amount of visible “consumer-related plastic waste” in those waterways. They excluded unidentified plastic items, or objects relating to fishing.

While much has been made of the amount of plastic waste in our oceans, the new report argues that more research is needed on rivers and streams, considering that 80 percent of plastic found there ends up in the ocean.

The report also offers suggestions for reducing the number of plastic bottles we consume. These include only buying bottles made of recycled plastic, and refilling old water bottles and those used for household cleaning products. Another option is the introduction of a bottle deposit scheme, which would see consumers pay a small extra charge on bottles, to be refunded when the bottle is recycled. The UK could also adhere to EU legislation banning single-use plastics, which is still yet to be implemented here.

Sam Chetan-Welsh, a political adviser for Greenpeace UK, told MUNCHIES over email: “This new evidence that plastic bottles are the worst polluter of Britain’s waterways is just another reason why we need the UK government to hold firm and deliver on their promise for a bottle deposit return scheme.”

“The government is consulting on this at the moment, but industry [bodies] are lobbying to water it down,” they continued. “Greenpeace is calling on the government to protect our waterways from plastic pollution.”

Let’s hope they don’t bottle it.