A team of good Samaritans risked their lives to clear thousands of pieces of plastic from the River Calder at Stanley Ferry this weekend.
Phill Mitchell, 57, spent two days removing litter from the water, after heavy rain caused the river to swell and revealed the extent of waste in the area.
Mr Mitchell, who is an experienced rock climber, secured himself to the trash screen at Stanley Ferry (inset) and then manoeuvred his way onto what he described as a “floating log island”.
He said: “The litter all washes off the banks, I think it’s the whole summer’s worth of plastic from the riverbanks.
“The trash screen at Stanley Ferry stops it all but they don’t clean it, they just wait for it to wash down river into the sea.
“It was a big job. We did it Friday and Saturday. On Friday I worked all day on my own and on Saturday I had a couple of friends help me.
“We need to address what’s going on in our rivers. It shouldn’t be down to independents like me. It would be nice if people stopped throwing litter about because when they do it’s just going into the sea.”
Assisted by Darren Bray and Steve Caddell, Mr Mitchell filled more than 65 bags with waste.
This included four notes in a bottle, one of which had been posted by a resident in Holmfirth.
Paul Dainton, head of local action group Residents Against Toxic Scheme (RATS), has been campaigning against waste at the site for more than 10 years, and congratulated the men on their effort.
The trash screen at Stanley Ferry is designed to keep waste from washing into the nearby aqueduct.
Mr Mitchell hopes that the waste collected from the river will be recycled, and thanked Wakefield Council’s Street Heroes team for helping to organise collection of the litter.
Paul Dainton, head of local action group Residents Against Toxic Scheme (RATS), said he has been fighting against litter at the site for more than a decade.
Mr Mitchell urged people not to copy his actions, but said he hoped that his efforts would serve as a warning about the amount of litter in the area.
He said: “We’re in a unique opportunity with this trash screen to be able to stop this trash going into the sea.
“I don’t think that’s an opportunity on other rivers. But it needs emptying. When the river drops it all just washes down. It’s absolutely tragic.”
Sean McGinley, director Yorkshire & NE at Canal & River Trust said: “The action taken by these volunteers clearly illustrates the passion people have to protect and look after our environment, our canals, rivers and oceans.
"While we cannot condone their actions, which were incredibly dangerous and put lives at risk, we can recognise their passion to look after the waterways and thank them for their efforts.
"We strongly advise that no further clean-ups like this are undertaken at the site to prevent any injury or loss to life.
"Our charity has lots of volunteering opportunities for people to get involved and make a difference, including an adoption scheme for groups keen to look after sections of our rivers and canals. Please visit our website for details – www.canalrivertrust.org"
“We appreciate this has been a long-standing concern for the community and seeing the scale of the issue we face in our waterways is shocking and distressing.
"Sadly, the efforts of these individuals only offers a short-term solution, with waste and driftwood likely to fill the trash screen again with high rainfall.
"Plastic pollution, fly-tipping and littering our waterways is an ongoing battle for our charity – so while efforts are well intended, we need longer term solutions to deal with the ongoing causes that impact this complex site and this needs wider discussion with key stakeholders in the area.
“Earlier this year the Trust published findings of an independent report ‘Plastics Challenge’ - the first detailed analysis of the scale of the plastic and litter problem we face on our waterways.
"We now know that litter and plastics in our rivers and canals come from a mix of items that are dropped either accidentally or intentionally by visitors, and items blown onto the waterways from local buildings and businesses which back onto canals and rivers.
"Read the Plastics Challenge report here - https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/media/original/40256-plastics-challenge-report.pdf?v=00cdca
“We have a significant project planned for summer 2021, forecast to be costing in excess of £250,000.
"Planned engineering works will include strengthening the existing decking to improve accessibility for walkers and cyclists and enable heavy maintenance vehicle access to maintain the structure and safely remove litter, plastics and the natural debris and detritus.”