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The great staycation summer of 2021 – will it threaten your local river?

As we are all very aware, COVID-19 has had far-reaching impacts not just on human health, but our way of life, and on the health of our planet. 

It has become highly apparent that despite the pandemic bringing some short-term environmental wins with less travel and decreased economic activity, this was an inconsequential blip in the overall trend of environmental decline. In reality, plastic production and pollution increased with greater demand for PPE, pharmaceuticals, cleaning products, groceries and takeaway food. The subsequent dramatic increase in demand on waste disposal systems overwhelmed capacity in many countries, leading to extensive mismanagement and plastic leakage to the environment, posing severe risks to environmental and human health. This brings an even greater urgency to find solutions to the ever-growing issue of plastic over-consumption and waste, and the subsequent environmental damage it causes.

 

This is a global problem, but it is also a local one. With summer on the horizon, and the country opening up again, we are set for one of the busiest tourist seasons the UK has ever seen. With more people outside, enjoying picnics and takeaway meals at beauty spots and along waterways, there will inevitably be an increase in littering - intentional or not. The pressure will largely be on local authorities to manage these unprecedented levels of local waste – and many may not be able to keep up.

In papers analysing the new problems the world is facing with managing plastic waste, scientists are calling it “imperative” to increase monitoring of plastic waste around the world post-COVID-19. They are calling for citizen science to play a key role in achieving this.1 We need to find out a lot, fast, and scientists cannot do it alone. Citizens hold the key to helping scientists and governments quickly understand widescale problems.

This, from the perspective of the scientific community, shows why projects such as Earthwatch’s RiverWatch: Plastic Pollution are more important than ever in the wake of COVID. Accessed through our Earthwatchers citizen science platform, the project can help us understand the true, current threat of plastic pollution to waterways both locally and nationally). Through a simple process of recording litter from 5m2 of riverbank near them, members of the public can help paint a picture of plastic pollution along waterways and within river catchments across the UK. From this we can identify key areas of concern and find hotspots of littering and other sources of plastic pollution.

 

Armed with this information, we can provide recommendations to local authorities, government and other policy makers, as well as to businesses, of where to focus efforts and how to make the biggest difference in tackling the problem. And you can use the information too: through plastic action workshops and toolkits, we can support you to take action in your local area to find solutions to the problems you encounter through your surveys. This is truly an opportunity to think global, act local.

By taking part in our RiverWatch: Plastic Pollution project, you can unlock an opportunity to help navigate the way through the new normal to “build back better” in the UK, and protect our rivers. Because, ultimately, what is more important to good hygiene than access to clean water?

 

You can take part in Earthwatchers, or find out more about the RiverWatch: Plastic Pollution project at https://my.earthwatch.org.uk.

References

1Silva, A.L.P., Prata, J.C., Walker, T.R., Camposa, D., Duarte, A.C., Amadeu Soares, A.M.V.M., Barcelò, D. & Rocha-Santos, T. (2020) Rethinking and optimising plastic waste management under COVID-19 pandemic: Policy solutions based on redesign and reduction of single-use plastics and personal protective equipment. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.140565

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