Public see sewage as biggest cause of river pollution

Untreated sewage has become seen by the public as the biggest cause of river pollution ahead of other contributors such as litter, fly-tipping and commercial waste, according to a new report by CCW.

The water consumer watchdog undertook research into people’s attitudes towards rivers, pollution in the environment and wastewater treatment, which showed the proportion of people citing untreated sewage as the main cause of river pollution in England and Wales rose sharply from 21% to 35% between May and December last year.

CCW commissioned Yonder to a carry out a survey of almost 2,200 adults in England and Wales in December last year. The results were compared to an equivalent subset of responses from a previous survey by Yonder in May 2021 covering the whole of the UK.

The research found a material shift in peoples’ perceptions of river pollution. The proportion of respondents in England and Wales stating they had “definitely seen” media coverage about river or stream quality rose from 16% to 24%, although 48% still said they did not recall seeing any such coverage in the news in the second poll in December.

The percentage of people who said they were aware from media that water companies use combined sewer overflows increased from 41% to 51%, whilst the share who had seen reports that “water companies pump untreated sewage into rivers without permits” rose from 34% to 46%. There was a small 1% fall in the proportion who had seen coverage about companies investing in and maintaining their infrastructure to prevent river pollution to 33%.

When asked to identify the main cause of cause of river pollution, the most common answer given by respondents in the May survey was litter and fly-tipping (29%). This was followed by business waste and chemicals in second (23%) and untreated sewage in third (21%).

However, in the follow up survey in December, untreated sewage had become the most common answer, given by 35% of respondents. The percentages identifying litter and fly-tipping, and business waste and chemicals as the main causes of river pollution both dropped to 19%.

There was increase in the percentage of people who said they wouldn’t expect a river to be clean enough to let children play in from 43% to 47%. Likewise, the proportion of people who said they would not expect a river to be clean enough to swim in rose from 37% to 43%.

In the December survey, a majority of people (53%) said they did not think a river was clean enough to put their head underwater and more than four-fifths (83%) said it would not be safe to drink from a river.

The percentage of people citing river pollution from sewage as environmental concern rose from 36% to 40%. It was seen as the fourth most significant factor affecting the environment behind microplastics, air pollution and severe flooding. River pollution from agriculture was only identified as a concern by 16% of respondents in the December survey.

In Wales, respondents were more aware of the causes of pollution from agriculture impacting the health of rivers and streams than people in England were.

Those in Wales were more likely to visit local rivers and were generally happier with the safety of the waterways than people in England. Welsh customers were also more likely than English to be aware of the work their water company was doing and investments in reducing river pollution.

Commenting on the findings of the research, CCW director of policy, research and campaigns, Mike Keil, said: “Sewerage companies must proactively do more to inform their customers about the steps they are taking to improve the environmental credentials of their operations. In addition, making information publicly available on environmental performance will help both raise awareness and rebuild trust.”