Follow usFacebookTwitterInstagramLinkedInYouTube

Plastic rivers

Tackling the pollution on our doorsteps

The complexity, scale and urgency of the plastics challenge means it's something we must tackle together.

The issue of plastic in the oceans has attracted a lot of attention in recent years. But did you know that the vast majority of the ocean’s plastic in our oceans comes from the rubbish in rivers?

We urgently need to confront this problem, and stop plastics from getting into our rivers. By doing this, we can safeguard freshwater ecosystems, and our oceans and coasts too – protecting human health and wildlife for the future.

Our Plastic Rivers project offers practical, evidence-based steps to tackle the plastic pollution on our doorsteps, so that everyone can be part of the solution.

plastic pollution in rivers

What can I do?

As consumers, we all have a part to play in reducing the amount of plastic that ends up in our rivers. To have the greatest impact, we should be using less plastic by choosing alternatives where possible, or by reusing the plastic items we already have.

Need some inspiration? Use our new online calculator to work out your plastic footprint and how to reduce it.


Take the plastic pledge

Ready to reduce your plastic footprint? Use this sheet to pledge how you will do it. Then stick it on your fridge for a daily reminder of the difference you’re making to reducing the plastic pollution on your doorstep.

What are the top ten pollutants?

As much as 80% of the plastic in the oceans originally comes from litter in rivers. In 2019 Earthwatch Europe , in partnership with Plastic Oceans UK, identified the top ten plastic items most commonly found polluting our rivers.

We can all help to prevent waste and pollution, and using less plastic is the biggest thing we can do. How many of these items do you use every day?

1. Bottles

The biggest source of plastic pollution in rivers, 6.9% of all used plastic bottles are littered a year in the UK.

2. Food wrappers

300 million crisp packets and 200 million sweet wrappers end up as litter in the UK every year.

3. Cigarette butts

In the UK an estimated 44 billion cigarettes are smoked each year, with over 14 billion ending up as litter.

4. Takeaway Containers

5.2 billion food containers are used each year of which 0.3 billion end up as litter.

5. Cotton bud sticks

1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds are used in England each year. 10% are flushed down the toilet.

6. Takeaway cups

An estimated 2.5 billion coffee cups (30,000 tonnes) are used each year. 99% are currently not recycled.

7. Sanitary products

Each day 3.4 billion wet wipes, 700,000 panty liners, 2.5 million tampons and 1.4 million sanitary towels are flushed down the toilet.

8. Smoking-related litter

Smoking-related packaging makes up 1.1% of all litter items found in freshwater environments.

9. Straws, cutlery and stirrers

4.7 billion straws, 316 million drinks stirrers and 16.5 billion single-use cutlery items are used each year. These items are often made from hard-to-recycle plastic.

10. Plastic bags

Single-use plastic carrier bag use has fallen 86% since the UK introduced the 5p tax in 2014, but the seven major supermarkets still handed out over a billion bags in 2017-2018.

Working with business to reduce microplastic pollution

At Earthwatch, we’re also working on the important issue of microplastics – tiny particles that can be found in (or created from) many everyday products.

Our report ‘Microplastics: How should businesses respond?’ provides an overview of the main risks to business posed by microplastics.

Want to find out how your business could help solve the microplastics problem? Take an online assessment today.

Visit our microplastics portal

Partner with us

Are you interested in finding out more about how your business can help us tackle plastic pollution and other environmental challenges? Read more about how you can work with us.

Spread the word about plastics

Download our infosheets about the top ten plastic pollutants of our rivers, and display them at home or at work.

Freshwater Watch

FreshWater Watch is a global project led by thousands of people like you. By taking part in our research, you will help us learn how to safeguard the quality and supply of this most precious and vital resource.

Contact us

We want to build collaboration and conversation across sectors to shape our investment and develop pioneering interventions. If you're interested in working with us, we'd love to hear from you.

Caroline Kluyver

Project Manager

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Ed Nemeshanyi

Corporate Development Manager

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Images: iStock/barbaraaaa, John Hunt, iStock/artisteer, iStock/vchal, eXXpedition, iStock/Serena Speticado Artimedes


Sign up
Earthwatch Europe

Creating Knowledge. Inspiring Action.

Contact us

Tel: +44 (0)1865 318838

© 2018 Earthwatch Institute. All rights reserved.
Earthwatch Institute (Europe) is a registered charity in England and Wales, no. 1094467.