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“Plastic from the biggest multinationals, who consistently pump plastic into our world, keeps ending up on our beaches”

As with most campaigning groups, there’s a moment that catalyses the movement. For a surfer in the 1980s, it was emerging from beneath a wave with human faeces squished between his chest and his surfboard, that the time had come to fight back.

So bad were the state of the British seas at the time, that many swimmers and surfers were getting ill with gastroenteritis and ear and throat infections. Despite the UK government insisting that all sewage was treated before being discharged, the reality was that 400 million gallons of raw sewage were being released into the sea every day.

Sick of getting ill, the community came together and emerged as a single-issue campaigning group called Surfers Against Sewage. Alongside key pieces of EU legislation such as the Bathing Water Directive, their action led to a nationwide campaign for improved water quality.

Although Surfers Against Sewage still campaign against sewage and agricultural pollution (that remains a major problem for the UK) it also fights against the plastic pollution that continues to blight beaches and strangle shores.

Hugo Tagholm, CEO of Surfers Against Sewage, spoke to The Skylark about the power of citizen science through beach cleans and the role it plays in bringing forward evidence to catalyse legislation on a circular economy.

At Surfers Against Sewage we’ve worked on the plastic pollution crisis for a long time and the response to it has always started with people’s tangible and real experience at the beachfront, along the tideline. It’s there where they’ve seen the impacts of plastic pollution and the impacts of plastic escaping and being dropped into the environment, whether that’s by corporate negligence or by people using those areas.

Beach cleaning is an incredible way to bring people together to protect the spaces they love most and beaches are some of our most loved natural wild spaces. Indeed, during the pandemic lockdown beaches and oceans were the most missed environment according to our recent public survey. And it shows just how much people want to go to the beach but also how motivated they are to protect the beach.

Beach cleans are a way the community can demonstrate their love and take direct action to protect these important spaces. They, of course, have an immediate effect: every piece of plastic that’s picked up is a mini victory for the environment. But more importantly, beach cleans help communities gather data and evidence to explore the ways we can actually tackle the root cause of plastic pollution.

That’s why beach cleaning is so important and that’s why we’re seeing so many thousands of people join us every year, from the tip of Scotland right down to Land’s End, to take action. It’s great to see such a passionate community of ocean activists leading the charge and the debate on the scourge of plastic pollution in our world.

Stop the linear economy

We can’t litter pick our way out of the problem and we can’t keep building bigger bins, burying more plastic in the earth in landfills or burning more through incineration. What we need to do is stop the linear economy and the amount of plastic that is being produced and unnecessarily dumped in the environment. Surfers Against Sewage use beach cleaning as a means to bring people together to, not only do something really positive for their local area, but more importantly, to hold governments and businesses to account to change the systems that rule all of our lives.

There needs to be a change to the systems available so we can contain and control plastic pollution to create a truly circular economy. Things like deposit return systems, the bans we need to see on certain types of plastics, the plastic bag charge; all sorts of interventions that can slowly but surely break down society’s fixation on single use plastics and the disposable economy and the disposable society.

We need to see radical action now

Much of the establishment would say that education is key to solving [crises such as climate change] because it outsources the problem to the next generation. It means that whatever happens now is fine. What Surfers Against Sewage want to do with young people is empower them to be activists and raise their voice and say the status quo is not good enough. And finding plastic on our tidelines and seeing plastic pumped into our oceans is not what they want to see. They are demanding change now.

I think it’s quite patronising to those young people to say that the people who have failed our environment, the people who have failed society, should now be telling them what they need to do when they grow up. What we need to do is empower young people to have a voice, give them a platform to talk about the issues they care about and the changes they want to see now because by the time they’re in charge it will be too late.

We need to see radical action now. So, we try and use all of our education programmes to actually empower them rather than talk at them about what they need to do when they’re older because that would be a dereliction of our duty as a campaigning organisation.

A complete systemic failure

The plastic pollution issue has been exposed by beach litter. At Surfers Against Sewage, we’ve empowered people not just with a litter pick but with the type of citizen science that can really help change the hearts and minds of the policymakers and those people in charge in our world. For example, we do brand audits on the beach to document the brands behind the plastic pollution we see on our beach. We can see how plastic from the biggest multinationals, which consistently pump plastic into our world, keeps ending up on our beaches because there aren’t the systems that contain and control that pollution.

Of course, there’s littering that goes on that shouldn’t happen but really, what we’re seeing is a complete systemic failure of a combination of the sheer volume of plastics that are coming into the marketplace and the lack of any infrastructure or recycling or circular system that truly can cope with that. And that’s what we want to address. So, brand audits are really important in holding those companies to account to make sure they’re investing in really ambitious programmes to stop plastic ending up in the environment and to make sure governments have the evidence they need to bring in powerful and bold legislation to create a circular economy and to stop pollution from ending up in the environment.

“We can’t litter pick our way out of the problem and we can’t keep building bigger bins, burying more plastic in the earth in landfill or burning more through incineration.”

We’ll need to see more things like deposit return systems and bans on certain types of plastics moving forward because there’s too much superfluous plastic that’s put into our world along with products that have no real long term value to humanity.

Action now

There’s a whole range of activities individuals can do with Surfers Against Sewage, from helping record plastic pollution to beach cleans and recording data for the Safer Seas Service.

Most of all you should find the thing that you’re most passionate about. Find an organisation that can commit to whatever aligns to your agenda – that could be Surfers Against Sewage, it could be Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Extinction Rebellion. There are loads of brilliant organisations out there doing great work and it’s been quite clearly demonstrated by this crisis that protecting the environment is fundamentally important to the health and wellbeing of everyone on the planet.

We can’t separate out the health crisis from the environmental crisis. They’re interlinked and interrelated and so the foundation for a healthy, happy society and the future on planet ocean is to protect and restore our environment.

If you have been inspired by any of the issues in this story, then click here to explore how you can Take Action and be part of the solution today.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity – 4th June 2020

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