Food packaging responsible for 74% of litter found in the Thames

Food wrappers contributing to global microplastics issue

28 July 2016: New data from Thames21’s Thames River Watch programme shows that food packaging in the Thames is one of the biggest culprits contributing to the river’s litter issue. Since its launch in 2014, Thames River Watch has conducted 36 litter surveys on the river foreshore with the aim of gaining a greater understanding of the types of litter present in the Thames and where it comes from.

origin of litter

The study, conducted by a network of trained citizen scientists, has thrown up some interesting finds about the health of the river. Not least that the 36 litter surveys, recorded approximately 35,000 pieces of plastic, less than 2.5cm in size, blighting the Thames foreshore.

Alice Hall, Thames River Watch Coordinator at Thames21 said: “What is worrying from our findings is that food wrappers are not only one of the most common items found littering the Thames, but also that they seem to be degrading into smaller and smaller pieces; adding to the global microplastics crisis.”


The data being collected by volunteers is helping to identify the main items of litter that are finding their way to the river. Of those that are clearly identifiable, the most common to date have been found to be food wrappers, takeaway containers, drink bottles and cotton buds.

AJ McConville, Thames River Watch Coordinator at Thames21 explained: “Our main objective is to prevent litter from finding its way into the Thames in the first place. With this data, we are able to pinpoint the type of litter present and better understand how it is getting into the river. This is crucial to developing solutions to effectively combat the littering issue affecting London’s iconic river at source.”

DSC00044The full results of the Thames River Watch programme will be published in a report later in the year and will be available for public view at

The public are urged to take greater care when disposing of their litter and to take it home if bins around the capital, especially outside fast-food restaurants, are overflowing.

Find out more or join the Thames River Watch as a citizen scientist by visiting:



Notes for editors

Litter surveys

The litter surveys were carried out in areas known as sinking hotspots, floating hotspots and foreshore reaches across 22 London locations.

A ‘sinking hotspot’ is an area where litter accumulates on the bed of the river – it sinks down and is often found at the low tide line. These sites often show consistent numbers of microplastics in the sand and mud and are also where most wet wipes, sanitary products and plastic bags are found.

A ‘floating hotspot’ is an area where litter accumulates at the top of the foreshore – it floats up with the tide and is found at the high tide line. These sites often accumulate densities of plastic bottles, polystyrene and food packaging.

A ‘foreshore reach’ is a more typical area of Thames foreshore – these are not sites where large densities of litter typically accumulate but where litter is present – as it is along most of the tidal Thames. Thames21 considers foreshore reaches to be more indicative of the litter along the Thames as a whole. These sites will often contain a mixture of sinking and floating litter items.

About Thames River Watch

Thames River Watch is a citizen science project by Thames21 that captures vital information on litter and water quality issues in the tidal Thames – from Teddington all the way out to the estuary. Thames21 is helping people understand what is happening in their river and how they play a crucial role in protecting it by empowering the community through water quality testing and litter monitoring trainings. All the information collected from this dedicated network of volunteers helps build a library of information about the tidal Thames and informs actions to improve the river’s health.

Thames River Watch is funded by Tideway.

About Thames21

Thames21 is an environmental charity putting healthy rivers back at the heart of community life. Through environmental improvements, education, research and advocacy efforts, Thames21 is inspiring and influencing effective and lasting change by working hand-in-hand with communities to deliver tangible and measurable improvements for urban rivers. | Registered Charity No. 1103997