After Dhruv Boruah spotted plastic floating in the ocean, he embarked on an eccentric quest to clean up London’s river…
‘I grew up in a remote town called Dhemaji, in north-east India. Hardly 10,000 people live there, and you can’t compare it to London. There’s absolutely no rushing, and there’s no manufacturing going on, so there’s no pollution and everything is fresh.
I moved to the UK in 2009. I had been working as a management consultant, but this year I decided to take a break and have some adventures. I trained for arctic survival in Svalbard, cycled round Colombia on a bamboo bike, and sailed from London to Rio. Along the way I saw a lot of plastic debris in the ocean, and started wondering what I could do about it. So when I got back to London I got involved in a few beach clean-ups on the Thames. The number of plastic bottles made me think: Is it this bad the whole length of the river? I went to find out for myself.
I’d been thinking about cycling on the Thames for a long time, because why cycle on the towpath if you can ride on the water? I reused my bamboo bike, which I’d made at the Bamboo Bicycle Club in Hackney, and got it on the water with Shuttle Bike, a company that provides a kit to make any bicycle float. You have two yellow inflatables that connect to the wheels, plus a small dynamo-like component that connects to the rear wheel and turns a cable that goes to a propeller on the front wheel. The propeller has an inbuilt rudder, so once I start pedalling and moving my handlebars, everything was the same as on the road.
‘Why cycle on the towpath if you can ride on the water?’
On September 18, I started my journey at the source of the Thames in Lechlade. Every day was different and the first was the worst. It was raining like hell and when I tried to put the bike in the water, the weight of it toppled the whole thing over. I thought: This is it – the project is over! But after a good hour I managed to get it out.
I had two fishing nets that I filled up every day with plastic, and I couldn’t even collect everything because some bits were hidden under a forest of seaweed. I also took pictures and geotagged them, to map which parts of the river are the most polluted. Oxford was particularly bad, with a lot of takeaway boxes, bottles, DVDs and even some Tesco chicken breasts still in the packet.
Nine days later, I finished my voyage in Teddington. The Port of London doesn’t allow water bikes any further, so a few weeks later I returned with a stand-up paddleboard, collecting plastic all the way to Tower Bridge.
My journey taught me the hard way that cleaning up the river is not going to solve the problem. We need to target the root cause: the purchase of plastic. I’m thinking of running some campaigns in London and trying to make them go viral, like filling up a London bus with plastic bottles to represent how much plastic waste is generated every minute in London.
I want to show people how plastic is affecting us: how some of it even comes back into our bodies via microplastics in fish or salt. I know you can’t totally cut out the use of plastic, just like that, but I’d like people to think twice before buying their next bottle of water. Every step helps.’
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