The environmental damage caused by pollution is a problem that we’ve had to face many times before in Greater Manchester.
New manufacturing and the rapid economic growth from the industrial revolution left its mark on our region in more ways than one.
The health of our communities suffered as thick smoke billowed from factory and residential chimneys resulting thick smog with soot building up everywhere. You could see the pollution you were breathing.
It wasn’t until people decided to do something about it that the situation dramatically improved in the twentieth century. Following the Clean Air Act of 1956, Denton Urban District Council was one of the first local authorities to embrace change and implement smokeless zones and plant trees to help remove the pollutants from the air around us. The other local authorities that now make up Tameside all followed suit within a few years of each other.
In the 1970s the newly created Greater Manchester Council (GMC) set about transforming the county’s polluted river valleys into an environmental and ecological asset for our city region. Although the GMC was abolished by the Thatcher Government in 1986, by the 1990s, the lasting legacy of the defunct County Council was clear to see with our Tame Valley, rejuvenated and enjoyed as an established linear country park running from Saddleworth down to Stockport once more. Today, the old industrial sites that had become polluted wastelands are unrecognisable as greenbelt, woodland, meadow and valuable recreational space on the edge of the urban areas surrounding the Tame.
However, last week, we were given a stark reminder of the new challenges of the twenty-first century.
I’m sure many of you have enjoyed watching David Attenborough’s hugely popular Blue Planet 2 on the BBC recently. As well as showing us more of nature than ever before, it also raised the very real threat that the toll of manmade plastic pollution is taking on marine life and the marine environment.
Last week, one section of the riverbed on the River Tame, near to Reddish Vale Country Park, on the Denton and Stockport border, was found to contain the world’s highest recorded level of plastic pollution. High levels were subsequently found across other watercourses in Greater Manchester: tiny fragments of plastic were also present in the Irwell, the Croal and the Roch, and more worryingly, the tiny fragments had even found their way as far as the stream network around Saddleworth.
Closer study by investigators from the University of Manchester found the tiny plastics, or microplastics as they are known, may have originated from industrial sites on the river networks, as well as water and sewer overflow from pipes connected to homes and other businesses.
These microplastics often come from things we all use which enter the water system as broken-down plastic waste, synthetic fibres and the beads found in personal hygiene products.
The extensive tests were carried out in 2015 and showed that a majority of the microplastics (70%) were washed away into the sea following the terrible floods across the winter of 2015/2016. Those plastics have now entered the ocean meaning that the fish we eat contains plastic, which means that plastic enters our system, where it has nowhere to go!
We have always tackled every challenge head-on in this part of the world, and eliminating the scourge of plastic in our waterways will be the biggest local environmental challenges of modern times. Our Labour teams in the new Greater Manchester Combined Authority, will be up for that challenge ahead.