Plastic Bottles Are the Most Common Litter in European Waterways

CC BY 2.0. Paige Bollman

A report found that bottles have surpassed bags and straws when it comes to prevalence in freshwater rivers.

The good news is that plastic grocery bags aren't as big a problem as we thought. The bad news is that plastic beverage bottles are a much bigger problem than we thought.

A new report by the Earthwatch Institute has revealed the ten most prevalent forms of plastic litter found in European waterways. The list, which was created based on data from nine studies of pollution in freshwater sources, reveals how efforts to crack down on certain single-use items (straws, bags) have been effective, while others need more attention (bottles, food wrappers). The list is as follows:

1. Plastic bottles (14 percent of all identifiable plastic litter items found in freshwater environments)
2. Food wrappers (12 percent)
3. Cigarette butts (9 percent)
4. Food takeaway containers (6 percent)
5. Cotton bud sticks (5 percent)
6. Cups (4 percent)
7. Sanitary items (3 percent)
8. Smoking-related packaging (2 percent)
9. Plastic straws, stirrers, and cutlery (1 percent)
10. Plastic bags (1 percent)

That plastic bags and straws rank so low on the list might come as a surprise, but this is likely the result of years of effective campaigns and fees to discourage their use. This is great, but we must not become complacent.

All of these forms of litter cause problems for wildlife and fish and are difficult to clean up. They leach toxic chemicals into the water as they degrade and cause serious blockages (especially in the case of wet wipes and the notorious fatbergs in London's sewer system).

When plastic litter ends up in freshwater rivers, it doesn't stay there. Scientists estimate that 80 percent of ocean plastic comes from river sources. Hence, their view that

"focusing on the clean-up of rivers is the best way to choke off the flow of existing rubbish into seas, while the ultimate source of the problem – our dependence on throwaway plastic products – is tackled."

Consumer choices do drive pollution levels. When the report authors were reviewing study data, they found that 37 percent of plastic items found in rivers were consumer-related items "frequently encountered in daily life." The ten items in the list make up 28 percent of all litter items counted.

By changing our consumption habits, refusing overly packaged items, and seeking out reusable alternatives, these amounts could be decreased. The report offers strategies for tackling waste and ranks them according to their efficacy.

I appreciate the report's suggestion that certain items cease to be manufactured or sold, i.e. plastic cotton buds. There is no reason for these to be made when better alternatives exist (i.e. wood or paper sticks). We, as shoppers, can do our best to avoid them, but companies have an even greater obligation to reformulate products to ensure circularity and reusability.

Read the whole report here.