The picture was revolting: a river clogged with a foul-smelling sludge of driftwood, thousands of plastic bottles, tyres and mouldering, discarded crisp packets.
How shaming, then, that this image, which was published on the Mail’s front page a month ago, wasn’t taken in some impoverished part of the world but in Yorkshire — right in the middle of Doncaster.
It showed part of the River Don, which flows for nearly 70 miles from the Pennines through Sheffield and Rotherham before flowing out into the Humber Estuary — meaning this trash was headed straight out to sea.
The picture was revolting: a river clogged with a foul-smelling sludge of driftwood, thousands of plastic bottles, tyres and mouldering, discarded crisp packets
Inspired by our wildly successful Great Plastic Pick Up, which saw thousands take part in nationwide litterpicks, we set out to get the Don cleaned up. How hard could it be, we asked? As it turned out, very, very hard indeed
It’s a sight that makes you want to jam on a pair of wellies, grab a rake, and start pulling the rubbish out yourself.
So the Mail, which has campaigned for ten years against the scourge of plastic bags, decided to try to do just that.
Inspired by our wildly successful Great Plastic Pick Up, which saw thousands take part in nationwide litterpicks, we set out to get the Don cleaned up. How hard could it be, we asked? As it turned out, very, very hard indeed.
LOUISE ATKINSON kept a diary of what happened next . . .
May 7, 2018
The Mail runs the picture, taken on May 4, on its front page — and there is outrage. John Hourston from the campaigning group Blue Planet Society said: ‘This is the worst picture of pollution in a British river I’ve ever seen and a real wake-up call. The majority of the litter is single-use plastic.’
The problem started after heavy rains in April washed floating debris into the water.
As the Don flows through Doncaster it splits into numerous channels and waterways designed to stop flooding. At two points along the river’s length the current is artificially slowed.
One is just by the Don Aqueduct, where the front-page picture was taken, and the other is at the back of Doncaster Prison, 15 minutes further downstream. Both spots are disgusting soups of plastic rubbish. I’m keen to tackle both.
I start my inquiries, full of optimism that I can get this sorted — fast! Surely all I need is a gang of can-do volunteers, a couple of canoes and a very large roll of rubbish bags?
So I check with charity Keep Britain Tidy and deputy chief executive Richard McIlwain stops my plans in their tracks: it seems I haven’t thought about today’s ever present health-and-safety rules.
‘Many people are horrified at the state of our precious waterways and want to do something about it,’ he says. ‘But there can be real danger working in rivers.’
He suggests first calling the Environment Agency, a government body in charge of public land and responsible for managing flooding and pollution. So I call its 24-hour incident hotline (finding the number takes some doing) to report the mess — and ask whether I can help clear it up. The hotline operative gives me an incident number and tells me to call General Enquiries in 20 minutes once my report has been logged to see if they’ll put me through to a Yorkshire-based officer. I do as I am told, but the phone operater seems perplexed. The Yorkshire-based duty officer would be the person to decide whether to accept help from the public, he says, but it was unlikely. This is all academic anyway as he won’t put me through to the duty officer.
I asked if anything would be done about the horrifying mess I’d reported. He said I’d get ‘feedback within ten days’, which seems a long time to wait.
That’s when I spot that a Yorkshire Environment Agency officer has tweeted the Mail’s pictures of the Don with a message: ‘I’ve taken a few reports this week of plastic and rubbish building up. We are working with landowners to get the waste removed ASAP for environmental reasons.’
I send a message to him to ask how the clear-up is progressing and if he needs a hand. No reply.
Surely I can do something?
Keep Britain Tidy’s Richard next suggests trying the Canals And Rivers Trust, an independent charity funded by public money which has guardianship of our canals, rivers, reservoirs and docks and responsibility for keeping waterways open and useful for boats.
How shaming, then, that this image, which was published on the Mail’s front page a month ago, wasn’t taken in some impoverished part of the world but in Yorkshire — right in the middle of Doncaster
One of their employees tells me they hold clean-ups around Doncaster’s waterways twice a month but that there are no imminent plans to target the areas in the pictures.
The problem for both spots, he reveals, is that any clean-up crew can’t just wade in and start pulling out plastic bottles. Any clean-up requires legal permission from whoever owns the land on the river bank as the crews will have to cross it to get to the rubbish. There also has to be a proper risk assessment and trained experts on hand for jobs like this.
Establishing who owns the land is another headache. Doncaster Council says the site behind the prison isn’t theirs, and suggests I try the Land Registry website to establish ownership. The website is complex — and demands a £14.95 payment for any kind of access. Once I’ve logged in — and paid up — it can’t give me a clear answer who owns the land.
Having faced nothing but brick walls I decide to wield the Daily Mail’s muscle (admittedly not available to the average citizen) and try to bypass the hotlines and go straight to the top. So I call a press officer at Environment Agency HQ in London to tell him the Mail is offering to help clear it all up — and when can we start?
He says he’ll look into it, and get back to me. He doesn’t. I’m beginning to get a little exasperated.
Keep Britain Tidy’s Richard sympathises. He previously worked at the Environment Agency and tells me the Land Registry doesn’t log every piece of land ownership and besides, waterways are difficult. In the UK access to rivers is governed by ancient laws and any clean-up has to approved by whoever owns the land that abuts it.
It might be the council, a private owner or any number of different bodies — from water firms to farms to nature reserves to foreign companies — he says.
What’s more, if they only own one river bank that permission will only reach to precisely half way across the river.
Stretch over the halfway point to grab an empty bottle and you could be treading on someone else’s toes so you need permission from both sides. ‘Access to rivers in England is a big bone of contention. It can sometimes be ridiculous,’ he adds wearily.
You don’t say.
One river bank at the prison site lies at the back of