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Canal & River Trust launches waterways plastics challenge

June 2019

Coot, Credit Mark C Baker
Credit Mark C Baker

Call to ‘act local’ to stop plastics entering the UK’s rivers and canals and ending up in the world’s oceans

  • New research states that more than half a million items of plastic reach the oceans from the charity’s canals and rivers every year (1)
  • Charity says that if every visitor picked up and recycled just one piece of plastic each time they visit, the canals and rivers could be plastic free in a year (2)
  • Charity spends over £1 million a year to help keep its waterways free of plastics and other discarded waste


Canal & River Trust, the waterways and wellbeing charity that cares for 2,000 miles of canals and river navigations in England and Wales, has published research about the volume of plastics and litter found in its waterways.

Litter trapped behind river weir boomThe charity is urging communities to take action on their doorstep to make their local neighbourhood beautiful and help tackle the global plastics crisis – don’t drop it, pick it up and recycle it to help make the nation’s canals and rivers plastics free.

Working with Coventry University, the charity has published a detailed analysis of the plastics and other litter found in its waterways.  The research, which reviewed data from 25 locations, found that plastics now account for 59% of waste found along its canals.  It estimates that 570,000 items of plastic reach the world’s oceans each year via its waterways. With the help of local communities this figure could be drastically cut.

Peter Birch, national environmental policy advisor at Canal & River Trust, says: “By taking a little care of their local waterway, everyone can have beauty on their doorstep.  The Canal & River Trust is on a mission to eradicate plastics from our vast network of canals and rivers – helping us all to live in better, more beautiful neighbourhoods, whilst tackling a global issue, and making life better by water.”

Studies show that around 80% of the plastics and litter found in our oceans comes from inland waste that passes through water-courses around the world and out to sea. (3)

Peter adds: “Devastatingly, despite being vital green corridors in the nation’s towns and cities, our canals and rivers can inadvertently act as ‘plastics highways’, transporting rubbish from where we live out to sea. Not only is this a huge problem for wildlife, which can be harmed, it also detracts from these special and important wellbeing places in our towns and cities. We believe everyone deserves – and can help create - beauty on their doorstep, and by taking action locally, they will also be helping tackle a global issue.”

As canals and rivers become more accessible – over four million people visit them every two weeks – and with almost one in five people admitting to dropping litter, a lot of this can unfortunately end up in our waterways. The vast majority of the litter found along and in the canals each year is potentially recyclable or could be re-used in creative and innovative ways. (4/5/6)

Litter trapped along banks

The Trust is calling on every visitor to its waterways to make their own small contribution to help keep them clear of plastics, whether by picking up and recycling a piece each time they visit, joining the Trust’s growing band of volunteers, or even adopting a short stretch of their local canal with friends, neighbours or colleagues.  The Trust, which is supporting Defra’s Year of Green Action working with #iwill4nature encouraging youth environmental action, has also published a downloadable free family plastics and litter activity pack which highlights to children the importance of taking action to prevent it.

Richard Parry, chief executive of Canal & River Trust, says: “We know that life is better by water and more people than ever appreciate the benefits of spending time alongside our waterways, right at the heart of thousands of communities across the country.  Plastic and litter free canals are beautiful, inspiring places for people to enjoy, whether for everyday use or a one-off visit, whilst also being hugely important habitats for some of the nation’s much loved and endangered species. Help us tackle a global issue by taking action on your doorstep today.”

Find out how you can help support Canal & River Trust’s Plastics Challenge and read the research report, or follow us on social media @CanalRiverTrust  #PlasticsChallenge.

Canal & River Trust, Toll House, Delamere Terrace, London, W2 6ND

The Canal & River Trust is a charity entrusted with the care of 2,000 miles of waterways in England and Wales. Get involved, join us - Visit / Donate / Volunteer at
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  1. 570 million items of plastics are reaching the oceans from Canal & River Trust canals and rivers each year.
  2. We have over four million people visiting our canals or rivers every two weeks (Waterways & Wellbeing Canal & River Trust report September 2017), and our research shows that plastics accumulation is just over 14 million items a year so if every visitor picked up just one piece of plastic every time they visited we would be plastic free within the year.
  3. Eunomia, Plastics in the marine environment.
  4. We have over four million people visiting our canals or rivers every two weeks (Waterways & Wellbeing Canal & River Trust report September 2017)
  5. England Litter Strategy 2017
  6. The Trust is looking at ways to reuse and recycle the plastic litter that is picked up and in addition 29% percent of the litter is metal, glass and paper which is generally widely recyclable (Quantities and Flows of Litter and Plastics, Canal & River Trust Report June 2019)


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