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Why Litter Pick?

Updated: Jul 2, 2023

Jonathan Dent tells us why we should care more about what happens to rubbish washing away down the river. 

Ecologist working on dirty beach of the lake.

Gather enough litter and you might even impress this capable-looking chap.                                     © kaninstudio –

Have you ever noticed the litter that is piling up in your local river or stream? Perhaps not: the following week, it has often disappeared. It’s more than likely that, rather than being recycled or collected for landfill, it was instead washed further down the river system. Out of sight, out of mind.

If you’ve ever walked down the beautiful Yorkshire coastline, you’ve probably been disgusted by all the litter washed up on the beach.  But where does it come from?  It’s likely that some of this has come from the sea, but most of what you’ll see has actually been washed down from our rivers.

Is there one place to blame?  Absolutely not.  Beach litter doesn’t start at the beach at all.  In Yorkshire’s case, it’s easy to blame Hull, close to the coast with the river Humber feeding out into the North Sea.  But while certainly, some litter originates there, the problem actually begins much earlier.  The Humber is formed by the river Trent, which starts life in Staffordshire, and York’s own river Ouse.  Problem solved – York’s to blame for the littered beaches.

Of course, it’s not that simple.  The Ouse is sourced in the Yorkshire Dales as the river Swale, and travels through various incarnations in beautiful locations throughout Yorkshire.  If you’ve ever seen litter in any of these rivers, chances are it’ll make its way to the Humber and then out onto the beach.

Some measures have been put in place to limit the effects of litter on our beaches.  Trash screens stop some litter, but not all of it, and while organic materials might degrade on the way, plastics and other non-degradable products certainly won’t (read more about plastics and the differences between compostable and biodegradable).

It doesn’t seem right that something 150-odd miles away in the Dales could end up being an issue on our North Sea beaches.  But nature has no boundaries.

Mexico ocean Pollution Problem plastic litter 7

Nature has no boundaries.                         © CL-Medien –

There is a current movement to manage the environment, especially rivers, through a catchment approach.  Here at St Nick’s we are part of the Dales to Vale Rivers Network which is doing just that, championing a Catchment Based Approach to the management of our rivers. And it seems to be working. From sharing skills, project ideas, problem-solving and fundraising, the benefits of such a partnership between stakeholders across the catchment is enormous.

But you don’t need the guilt trip about pollution.  You probably realise how bad things are.  Perhaps you’re motivated to act, but don’t know how.  Well, it’s easy!

Since 2016 we at St Nick’s have been holding regular volunteer ‘clean up days’ on our small local section of river in York, encompassing Tang Hall and Osbaldwick Becks.  Once a month on a Friday morning, local people from the area come together and undertake a deep clean of litter along the becks.  They often come back with some weird and wonderful finds and, inevitably, a thrown-away shopping trolley.

Plastic carrier bags and other garbage pollution in ocean

A build-up of litter creates hazards for wildlife.   © Richard Carey –

While these sessions are great for doing our bit in cleaning the becks and preventing litter from travelling further downstream, they have lots of other benefits too.  The sections of beck are surrounded by open green spaces which act as essential floodplains, provide habitats for native wildlife, and create valuable open space for community use.  A build-up of litter and fly-tipping creates hazards for wildlife and people, but it can also increase flood risk, blocking sections of waterways, ducts, and trash screens, preventing water from flowing naturally.  The build-up of litter is not directly responsible for York’s recent record-level flooding, but it certainly doesn’t help, and it can magnify the flood risk to nearby properties.

Dealing with litter may seem like a thankless task.  There’s always more to do, and there will always be people who prefer littering to making an effort.  But our hard work has had a visible effect.  On many a clean-up session, we’ve been lucky enough to be disturbed by a flash of blue of a kingfisher, the plop of a water vole going for a swim, or the discovery of otter poo along the banks.  Seeing and understanding more about the wildlife living in the rivers helps keep up our enthusiasm – we are acting to improve their situation.

So why not come along to our monthly session and help out? Or get in touch with your local councillor and inquire about starting a similar group on your own stretch of river. There are plenty of groups out there like St Nick’s doing similar things, so give it a try: get in touch with them and start cleaning up your local area for the benefit of everyone.

About the Author: Jonathan Dent has managed the nature reserve at St Nicks for five years. As well as maintaining St Nicks’ 24 acre nature reserve he runs various conservation projects around York. You can contact him on, 01904 411821 or find more information at

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