Alarming figures recently published by Defra show that only 14% of England’s rivers meet the criteria for ‘good ecological status’.

Even more worrying is that a change in monitoring techniques to report the presence of chemicals more accurately, has resulted in none of our surface water bodies meeting the criteria for ‘good chemical status’.

Defra is calling for collective action to improve the quality of water in our rivers, including legally binding targets as part of its 25 Year Environment Plan. The Plan aims to reduce the amount of water that companies will be allowed to abstract from rivers, return chalk streams to their natural state, reduce the environmental impact from storm overflows, and reduce pollution from sewage, agriculture, and chemicals.

Here we look at how the UK is polluting our rivers…


Every year, tens of thousands of litres of fat, oil and grease (FOG) are poured down sinks in homes and businesses. When fat, cooking oil and grease cools it forms a solid mass which can easily block pipes and cause flooding. The resulting disruption, damage to local trade and loss of profits can be significant, but your business can fight back against fatbergs. If your business limits the oils it washes down the sink and stops sending unflushables such as wet wipes into the sewers, you can help prevent fatbergs impacting your business.

Farming and agriculture

Run-off from agricultural industries is responsible for 40% of damage to our waterways. This is one of the incentives behind River Action, a new campaigning organisation that has been set up to address the problem of the UK’s river pollution. The Environment Agency is examining more than 50 sites that supply salad and vegetables to supermarkets and other businesses for signs of pollution, after finding that a leading UK provider of fresh prepared food was discharging neonicotinoids into a protected chalk stream. The company did take immediate action and there have been no further instances, but the Environment Agency are assessing other sites where permits have been given to allow producers to discharge water used to wash food into rivers and streams. The good news is that there are many ways to improve water efficiency in agriculture that lead to a positive impact on economic and environmental sustainability.


Sewage is a huge problem, especially in London. The Victorian sewage system is no longer able to cope with the increase in population, which is now twice the size of its capacity. As a result, millions of tonnes of raw sewage is discharged into the River Thames each year. The good news is that Tideway, a new ‘super sewer’, is being constructed and is due to be in full operation by 2025.

In the meantime, sewage discharge is a real problem, and there has been concern expressed that the Event Duration Monitors used to detect spills are not recording the true scale of the problem. The Environment Agency told The Times newspaper: “There have been substantial improvements to water quality over the last two decades but there is more to do to continue this trend. We have already secured a more robust and consistent approach for water and sewerage companies to monitor spills, identifying over 800 Overflows to be investigated and 600 Overflows to be improved within the period 2020-2025.”


Taking action

Whilst huge steps have already yielded results over the past 20 years - for example, there is now 60% less phosphate, 70% less ammonia and 50% less cadmium and mercury in our wastewater - there is still a long way to go. Population growth and consequent land use are contributing to the problem.

Last year, on World Rivers Day, Defra restated the aims and responsibilities of the Environment Agency when it comes to keeping our rivers clean. This includes £5bn of investment to improve rivers, groundwater, and protecting chalk streams. The Agency is also taking steps to work more closely with farmers, commerce, industry, and the water companies to deal with the problem.

How your business can help

As individuals and businesses, we can all do our part too, not only by taking steps to use less water, but also to stop flushing wet wipes or tipping fats, oils, and grease down the sink. Minimise the amount of chemicals and oils that you put down the drain, especially important for businesses in the Industrial and Manufacturing sector, and businesses that dispose of trade effluent. Make sure your car or fleet of company cars are well maintained, and check to make sure there are no leaks so oil and antifreeze/coolant don’t have the chance to leak onto the ground.

Use our Water Efficiency resources to make improvements in your business that will lead to a positive impact on economic and environmental sustainability.

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