BY KATIE - MYGREENPOD, 16 Nov '18

Surfers Against Sewage is helping to turn the tide on plastic pollution

This article first appeared in our autumn ’18 issue of MyGreenPod Magazine, The Consumer Revolution, distributed with the Guardian on 16 Nov 2018. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), one of the UK’s most active and successful environmental charities, is a grassroots movement that started in Porthtowan Village Hall in 1990. It was set up by people who were sick of seeing sewage in our seas and on our beaches; worse still, they were fed up of getting ill when doing the sports they loved: surfing, swimming, windsurfing and anything else that involved being in the sea.

‘In May 1990 it was decided that enough was enough’, says Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of SAS. ‘It was surfers’ direct contact with the ocean and their subsequent exposure to the sewage pollution at the time that was the visceral driving force behind the emerging organisation. The direct relationship with the ocean and coastal environment is the foundation to the organisation that remains a powerful basis for everything we do to this day.’

Surfboards in boardrooms

For the first decade SAS was a single-issue campaign group; it drew attention to sewage-polluted waters, documented how it was making people sick and highlighted the sweeping new environmental legislation established in Europe. The EU Bathing Water Directive and the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive 1991 were the real game-changers that provided a perfect legislative backdrop for the group to call for cleaner oceans.

‘SAS swiftly became high-profile eco-activists, clad in wetsuits and gas masks, carrying surfboards into boardrooms and political meetings. We met people who barely knew you could surf at all in the UK, let alone get sick while doing it’, Hugo tells us. ‘The organisation became a catalyst for change, highlighting the need for faster sewerage infrastructure investment, collating health evidence from ‘infected’ water users and connecting previously disparate surfing communities into what became one of the best-recognised environmental campaign movements of the 1990s.’

Thanks to the powerful European legislation and some great campaigning, the UK has seen massive investment in sewerage infrastructure over the last 30 years – and massively improved bathing water quality. Today, 98.5% of our beaches meet the minimum bathing water standards – in 1990 this would have been just 27%.

Tackling plastic pollution

SAS set out to improve water quality around our coastline, but it doesn’t stop at sewage. Around a decade ago the group turned its attention to plastic pollution, labelling plastic ‘the new poo’. ‘While water quality issues still run strongly in our organisational DNA’, Hugo tells us, ‘we realised we needed to use our experience and expertise to take on the most serious emerging environmental issues facing our oceans, from climate change to plastic pollution.’

For years, a love of the ocean has driven tens of thousands of volunteers to join SAS at the frontline of plastic pollution: our beaches. ‘I’m sick of walking over a plastic tideline when I go surfing or when I take my son, Darwin, to the beach’, Hugo says. ‘With more plastic having been produced between 2002 and 2012 than in the whole of human history before that, and this trend only growing, it’s no surprise we have a plastic pollution crisis in our oceans. This is our new sewage. We’re responding at every level – calling for better legislation to stop plastic pollution, urging industry to innovate away from single-use, throwaway plastics and mobilising the biggest beach clean community in the UK.’

Public interest has been building for a number of years, driven largely by those who have witnessed plastic pollution in pristine marine environments. ‘Single-use plastic packaging in particular, coming from a cornucopia of high-street brands we all know, is now almost more abundant than the shells and cuttlefish bones that I collected as a kid’, Hugo says.

The marine plastic pollution jolt came to the wider public when the BBC’s Blue Planet II was transmitted to living rooms worldwide. Thankfully, brilliant charities were ready and waiting with campaigns and community activities – from beach cleans to petitions calling for strong legislation to control single-use plastic production and consumption.

Beach Clean Box Volunteers
Beach Clean Box Volunteers
Hugo Tagholm & Prince Charles (c) Ian Lean (1)
Hugo Tagholm & Prince Charles (c) Ian Lean

Beach cleans

SAS started strategically organising nationwide beach cleans just over a decade ago. ‘In 2008 we worked with a handful of individuals, approximately 1,000 volunteers annually’, Hugo tells us. ‘This year we’ll see over 75,000 volunteers join us at beaches around the UK to take direct action on plastic pollution at the spots they love most. This is now the biggest beach clean community in the UK. Anyone can get involved; our beach cleans are inclusive, safe and, most of all, fun events for the whole community.’

SAS has passionate volunteers from the tip of Scotland to Land’s End. ‘There’s always a great turnout in Tynemouth, which has a brilliant community’, Hugo says. ‘Perranporth is also a fantastic beach where we’ve held many successful events and removed tonnes of plastics. We also hold an increasing number of river cleans and I always love to participate in events on the banks of the Thames. As a boy I used to go mudlarking with my dad and my brothers on the banks of the Thames, looking for clay pipes, coins and other jetsam. It’s perhaps on this iconic tidal river that I started my love affair with the ocean and beach cleaning.’

All sorts of weird and wonderful things are found at beach cleans – but what horrifies Hugo most is the durability and persistence of plastics in the marine environment. ‘We find crisp packets and bottles that are decades old and in almost pristine condition’, he tells us. ‘It’s almost a plastic time capsule, a nostalgic journey down a plastic-paved memory lane of all of the brands of 30 or 40 years ago.’

Taking the fight upstream

As well as cleaning up the coastline, Hugo is well aware of the need to stop plastic pollution at source. An SAS petition attracted 330,000 supporters as part of its successful campaign for a a well-designed Deposit Return System. ‘We are committed to delivering as many beach cleans as possible’, Hugo says, ‘but we know we can’t simply pick our way out of the plastic pollution problem. Every piece of plastic removed from the beach is a win for the environment, but every piece we stop getting there in the first place is an even bigger victory.’

SAS has also launched a Plastic Free Communities initiative in a bid to take the fight upstream. It’s uniting communities to reduce their single-use plastic footprint using a five-step framework that brings together local businesses, the local council, charities, schools and individuals. The goal is to help communities to eliminate specific single-use plastics, tackling the usual suspects first: plastic water bottles, plastic cutlery, straws, stirrers, plastic bags and the usual plastics that pollute our beaches.

Hugo says there has been ‘an incredible response’ to the Plastic Free Communities campaign; over 375 communities are working towards ‘Plastic Free Community Status’ with SAS. ‘Those with this status have eliminated or replaced a certain number of single-use plastics, and are united in removing more’, Hugo explains. ‘We based it on the Fairtrade Towns model, which has a similar framework. The communities working towards Plastic Free Community status with us already represent over 25 million citizens and thousands of businesses.’

The community movement and the groundswell of public opinion is shifting the dial in the favour of a lower plastic future, but Hugo believes we need new legislation to drive change. ‘Manufacturers and retailers need to design throwaway plastics out of their products and services, and offer systems to control, contain, reuse and recycle unavoidable plastics’, he tells us. ‘We need a truly circular economy, but currently the public just isn’t provided with the products and systems to make this a reality.’

A plastic-free society

Everyone can reduce their personal plastic footprint. ‘Think about what you can get rid of’, Hugo says. ‘Do you really need a straw or that stirrer in your drink? Then think about replacements – reusable bags at the supermarket checkout, your refillable coffee cup, a reusable water bottle and maybe even reusable bamboo cutlery if you travel a lot. Celebrate every piece of single-use plastic you avoid!’

Looking back at SAS’s success on water quality, it took around 15 years from the introduction of European legislation in 1990/1991 to the completion of the investment from water companies to put the new infrastructure in place that today delivers a much cleaner surfing and bathing experience around the coastline. Reflecting on this timeline, Hugo is looking at 2018/2019 as the year to secure new government legislation, systems and commitments from industry. ‘I’d say it will take up to a decade for some of the effects to be truly felt and seen in the environment’, he says, ‘and for a ‘plastic-free’ society to be established.’