As traffic roars by on a bridge overhead, a cormorant stands on the banks of the River Lea and stoops down to chomp at a pile of discarded polystyrene.
On this urban waterway in the heart of hipster Hackney, a group of fashionable Londoners is fishing Walkers crisp packets, Capri Sun juice cartons and bottles of Buxton water out of the river with litter-grabbing sticks, watched closely by a coot paddling past.
Another coot lies dead in the water alongside a rubber glove, a collection of plastic bottle lids and a mass of shredded polystyrene packaging bobbing alongside the moored barges.
Overshadowed by blocks of flats and soundtracked by the bustle of the A104, this stretch of the Lea feels a world away from the exotic locations in Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, which showed albatrosses and dolphins struggling with the mass of plastic littering our oceans and caused a national outcry.
However, as Bettina Maidment, 38, points out, the Lea flows into the Thames, which flows into the North Sea. There is a direct link between the plastic discarded by residents of an inner London borough and the damage wreaked on the open seas.
This prompted her to found Plastic Free Hackney using a framework designed for the 75,000 local volunteers recruited by Surfers Against Sewage, one of the charities supported by The Times Christmas Appeal. “I used to love Ribena,” said Daisy Hutchison, 41, “but now I find those little plastic wrappers for the straws on Ribena cartons everywhere and I don’t buy it any more. The government and big business seem so reluctant to tackle the issue, so it is up to individuals to clear up.”
She volunteers at her children’s school, sourcing reusable cutlery and crockery for school events that parents can borrow for pupils’ parties. Her family produces only one bin bag of non-recyclable rubbish per month after cutting down on packaging and she washes her clothes in a special bag to prevent synthetic microfibres from escaping into the water.
With her on a litter-pick in the drizzle on a cold weekday morning is Sam Smithson, 36, who runs Grow, a sustainable music venue powered by “eco-electricity” and stocked with organic and locally sourced food.
Also volunteering is Dominika Wisniewska, 29, who works at an artisan bakery called the E5 Bakehouse. Set beneath railway arches with its own stone mill, it sells organic bread in biodegradable packaging from a store powered by renewable energy.
They have embraced an eco-friendly lifestyle not to save an expanse of idyllic coastline or countryside, but to protect a small pocket of greenery and wildlife thriving in the heart of London, where they have seen the damage done by consumer culture.
“I remember seeing a swan on the canal that could not feed properly as it had a plastic ring from the lid of a water bottle wedged around the bottom part of its beak,” Ms Hutchison says. The average Londoner gets through 175 single-use plastic bottles per year and 300 tonnes of rubbish is cleared from the Thames annually. Lucozade bottles, Costa coffee cups and newsagent carrier bags are other common sights floating in the water or peeping out from the verge, while condoms, tampon applicators and disposable lighters feature regularly in the rubbish gathered in sacks.
“The pondweed builds up and catches all the rubbish and you see the ducks and birds standing there picking at the plastic,” Ms Maidment says. “Hackney is quite a green borough for urban central London and people feel passionately about keeping Hackney Marshes and the River Lea clean. The message is really getting across and we’re seeing a lot more uptake. We had 90 people on our last litter-pick and about 200 bags of rubbish.” As we scour the towpath, a dog-walker asks if he can join in and takes the group’s details.
Recent outings retrieved an inflatable mattress that was floating down the river, two iPads, a suitcase of discarded clothes and a bag of golf balls, as well as numerous odd shoes and deflated balloons whose strings were tangled in the twigs by the bank.
Cleaning up the riverbanks is addictive, Ms Maidment adds, and can be a good source of second-hand items. “I’m a big fan of street treasure,” she says. “I’ve found and reused a designer pair of men’s trousers, hose reels, a lot of hairbands. I’m basically like a Womble. I have no shame in doing it.”