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The University of Southampton
Geography and Environmental Science

Cleaning up plastic pollution on the River Itchen by Dr Malcolm Hudson

Published: 20 April 2023
Dr Malcolm Hudson

In the third and final blog in our series prior to the 50th anniversary of Environmental Science at Southampton, Dr Malcolm Hudson talks about his involvement in combatting plastic pollution.

The issue of plastic pollution caught the global community unawares. We had started to see plastic on our shorelines some time ago – I remember seeing plastic bags and bottles on the seabed on a family holiday in Turkey in 2008. Since then, it’s become a major global focus – governments have banned some single use items, and a UN agreement to end plastic pollution is coming next year.

This global issue has become a problem locally. The Itchen Estuary in Southampton is internationally important for wildlife; especially Chessel Bay, an area of mudflat, reedbed and saltmarsh and a reserve for migratory birds. I was shocked to discover that the area was covered in small pieces of plastic litter, especially ‘nurdles’- the tiny plastic production pellets made all around the world and shipped to local companies who turn them into plastic goods. Unfortunately they are easily spilled and can then build up on our shores, mixed in with other plastic items.


plastic waste

The alarm had been raised by local community group Friends of Chessel Bay (led by Southampton graduate Rose Nicole) and Surfers Against Sewage volunteers. The Environment Agency asked me to help work out how to clean up the pollution, and along with the City Council, committed funds to make a start. In 2021 we joined forces with Nurdle – a start-up business with specialised vacuum devices for cleaning shorelines. As Nurdle embarked on a clean-up trial of some of the worst patches, I monitored the health of the wildlife – with Environmental Science Students Deanna Rose and Megan Robinson helping with the data collection and analysis.

plastic waste

Our results were good – the plants weren’t damaged by the clean-up, and grew bigger after the plastics were cleared; so this year we are cleaning the whole bay, with the Nurdle team regularly onsite, removing around four tonnes of plastic so far, including around 50 million nurdles, while we have continued to monitor how the site recovers.

plastic waste

In the long term, cleaning up the site is only part of the solution – we need to stop plastic getting into the estuary and building up in the nature reserves. We are engaging with the stakeholders to create a long-term pollution prevention plan for the Itchen, with a workshop next month (May). I hope to see big changes. Ideally, local plastic producers will see the benefits of adopting more responsible and sustainable practices, shoreline businesses will take better care of their sites and their waste materials, and the water companies will address the storm overflows that have notoriously dogged our waterways over recent years; while the local community will deal with littering and manage their rubbish sensibly – and enjoy a better place to live as result.


The ambition is to see the Itchen Estuary restored to its former glory – with clean and healthy natural areas. And this can be delivered by collaboration and cooperation – with the University supporting the local community, businesses, and government in improving our environment.

More pictures of the Chessel Bay clean-up can be found on the Nurdle website here.

The clean-up was featured on BBC One Show 3 April 2023, from 22 mins, 30 seconds.

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