Deborah Leach and Thames21

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By Dwell
If you’ve never heard of “fly-tipping,” then you’ve certainly seen its results. Fly-tipping is the British term for dumping garbage illegally, and it’s the civic challenge that motivated Londoner Deborah Leach to start a research project with the Tidy Britain Group (now ENCAMS) to investigate what it takes to engage citizens in cleaning up trash-laden waterways. “The litter along the Thames shores and flowing beneath its bridges was upsetting thousands of Londoners,” Leach recounts. Beyond their desire for cleaner rivers and canals, she found people eager and willing to help.

With support from a number of British environmental agencies and the Greater London Authority, Thames21 was soon launched. Leach took the helm, directing a rapid proliferation of subgroups and additional projects to clean not only the Thames but community waterways wherever residents volunteered. Previously the head of fundraising and marketing for Sports Leader UK, Leach was well equipped to wrangle volunteers and manage programs run mostly on enthusiasm. "There are a lot of similarities between my past job and Thames21," says Leach. "It’s all about mobilizing local communities, getting people involved and making a difference in their neighborhoods."

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Being director doesn’t keep Leach out of the trenches. She regularly pulls on waders with her volunteers. When asked whether anything unusual has turned up, she answers, "There is always that lurking thought that we might stumble across human remains. Sometimes we find old clothes that look like body parts, but all we’ve ever found is part of one very old skull. You may have heard of the ‘Torso in the Thames,’ which was discovered floating under Tower Bridge in 2001. At the time we were organizing a Weird Litter Competition. The police gave us a password to use in case anything like a leg turned up. It hasn’t, so far."

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