Bringing London’s Waterways to Life

I spent a fascinating and enjoyable Saturday near Wembley recently learning about the challenges facing London’s waterways, courtesy of Molly, of Thames 21, a registered charity. Like me, she’s a displaced New Yorker, though the time she’s spent in the (dis)United Kingdom is rather less than mine.

“Bringing London’s Waterways to Life” is Thames 21’s strap line and by waterway, they mean struggling Father Thames, his tributaries and the canal system within the catchment area (American: “watershed”).

One of the Challenges

I learned a lot. For example, during storms, the drainage system in Central London allows surface runoff from rainwater and sewage to mix, before discarding the end product directly into the river. Yuck. Further afield, the tunnel system is dual, keeping the two apart. A “super sewer” is currently under construction that should ease this problem.

Why this is so important

I already knew about the countless tyres (ironically, an ideal home for eels), supermarket trolleys (a safe haven for young fish), motorbikes, etc. that have been thrown in. But these are just the tip of the rubbish iceberg. How long does it take for human waste products to biodegrade?

  • Orange peel: 6 months (The New York Times)
  • Cigarette butt: up to 50 years (Pocket Guide to Marine Debris, The Ocean Conservancy, 2004)
  • Plastic food container: 50-80 years (Penn State University)
  • Aluminium can: 80-200 years (Pocket Guide to Marine Debris, The Ocean Conservancy, 2004)
  • Plastic soda bottle: 450 years (Penn State University)
  • Monofilament fishing line: 600 years ((Pocket Guide to Marine Debris, The Ocean Conservancy, 2004)
  • Glass bottle: 1,000,000 years (Pocket Guide to Marine Debris, The Ocean Conservancy, 2004)
  • Styrofoam: never (Penn State University)

Getting prepared

Thames21 trains volunteers who then lead clean ups. We went through the Health and Safety guidelines and there’s plenty to think about. Guns and knives are found in the waterways regularly. Their live hand grenade tally is one. We didn’t discuss WW2 bombs but there must be hundreds—perhaps thousands—of them buried deep in the gloopy mud.

Other hazards included Weil’s disease (or leptospirosis). It’s a potentially fatal bacterium that enters the environment via the urine of rodents (especially rats). It can infect the victim via cuts or if contact is made with the mucous membranes. Consequently thick rubber gloves, “picking tools” and steel soled boots and waders are mandatory. If you get flu-like symptoms within several weeks of sharing a location with rodents, tell your doctor!

Then there’s Giant Hog Weed. A beast of a plant which should be left well alone on account of the bristly micro-hairs on its surface and highly photo-sensitive liquid within. If micro-hairs touch your skin, think acid. Think scarring. Think photo-sensitivity (a blistering of the skin triggered by sunlight, not a preoccupation with your Facebook profile pic). These symptoms can persist for months or years. Sounds off-putting? I’d say it’s better to be forewarned.


Clean-ups are organised locally and the charity is making a difference as streams are cleared, meadows sowed with wild flowers and stretches returned to something approaching pristine condition. Exercise is taken, friendships made and an occasional unplanned swim enjoyed. But it’s a constant struggle – and an important battle to be won!

And here, courtesy of the BBC, is a beautiful video documenting the return of kingfishers to one stretch of our waterways – an stunning illustration of why all this effort is so worthwhile.

I look forward to leading a clean-up soon!


Thames21’s vision is to put healthy rivers back at the heart of community life, and they’re taking a four-pronged approach to get there. Through their education programme, they are empowering people and their environmental enhancement work is transforming rivers; meanwhile their pioneering research and advocacy work are paving the way for sustainable change and all of this is achieved with the direct engagement and support from a wide network of dedicated volunteers.

Plastic Ocean Festival near Paddington

On sunny Tuesday, July 18th, I visited a Plastic Ocean Festival event near Paddington station, London. Located on the Paddington canal system, charity stalls and free outdoor movies promoted awareness of the overwhelming amounts of, and intense ocean and waterway ecosystem destruction caused by, plastics.

I met with enthusiastic representatives of two outstanding charities, Thames 21 and Thames Estuary Partnership, that are both working hard to reduce plastics in our water systems in different ways. This event was one in a series of events run by the creators of  A Plastic Ocean movie.

Thames Estuary Partnership

Kim Ferran Holt, Marine Litter Coordinator for TEP, explained that the group is currently working with partners to run a One Less Bottle Campaign – encouraging people to refuse single use plastic bottles and carry a refillable one. You can follow their campaign under at and . Other exciting projects (among many) that TEP is partnering with include a Thames Lens Photography competition and an around Britain sailing eXXpedition that Kim will join, with 14 women sampling waters for plastics and toxins as they go.

TEP is “the only non-campaigning organisation looking after one of the world’s premier rivers…provide a framework for sustainable management of the Thames.” Their “mission is to connect people, ideas and the Thames landscape…by raising awareness of estuary issues”.

Thames 21

Nick Anthony explained Thames21’s vision is to put healthy rivers back at the heart of community life, with a four-pronged approach including clean ups, education, research and advocacy.

The charity also provides free training on Leading a Waterway Cleanup and gives guidance and support afterwards if you decide you’d like to lead your own cleanup at a waterway near you. Or you can just join in a project already organised in their events calendar. Every contribution helps!

Thames 21’s tagline says: We reconnect people to nature by helping them enjoy, protect and enhance their local rivers.

A Plastic Ocean – the movie

This compelling and informative documentary, A Plastic Ocean was shown on the outdoor movie screen on the building next to the festival area . Stomach-wrenching to watch, this high definition and well researched film delivers a strong message: The health of our oceans is not going well.

If you’d like to get involved and be part of the solution, here below is the contact information of two charities that are doing some great work:

Thames 21

Stay in touch and find out more about opportunities to help out and training at Thames 21 events on twitter, facebook and at Thames 21’s site. You can also contact them at or at 020 7248 7171.

Thames Estuary Partnership

Find out more about Thames Estuary Partnership on twitter, facebook and at their website. You can also contact them at or at 020 7679 8855.

Plastic Ocean Festival

For more Plastic Ocean events, visit the Plastic Ocean Festival site. For more information on how you can help out, check out What I Can Do.