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  • Edward Owen-Burge

Hugo Tagholm: We can’t litter pick our way out of the problem

As with most campaigning groups, a moment 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 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 critical 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 campaign against sewage and agricultural pollution (a significant problem for the UK), it also fights against the plastic pollution that continues to blight beaches and strangles shores.


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



At Surfers Against Sewage, we’ve worked on the plastic pollution crisis for a long time. The response to it has always started with people’s tangible and authentic experience at the beachfront, along the tideline. There, they’ve seen the impacts of plastic pollution and the impacts of plastic escaping and being dropped into the environment, whether 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, beaches and oceans were the most missed environment during the pandemic lockdown, according to our recent public survey. And it shows how much people want to go to the beach and 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 picked up is a mini victory for the environment. But more importantly, beach cleans help communities gather data and evidence to explore how we can tackle the root cause of plastic pollution.


That’s why beach cleaning is so essential and why thousands of people join us every year, from the tip of Scotland 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.


We need to 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. We need to stop the linear economy, and the amount of plastic produced and unnecessarily dumped in the environment. Surfers Against Sewage use beach cleaning to bring people together to do something positive for their local area and, more importantly, hold governments and businesses accountable.


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 plastics, the plastic bag charge, and all sorts of interventions can slowly but surely break down society’s fixation on single-use plastics, the disposable economy, and the disposable society.


We need to empower young people to have a voice

Much of the establishment would say that education is critical 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. 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 pretty condescending to those young people to say that the people who have failed our environment, who have failed society, should now be telling them what they need to do when they grow up. We need to empower young people to have a voice and give them a platform to talk about the issues they care about and the changes they want to see now because it will be too late by the time they’re in charge.


We need to see radical action now. So, we try and use all of our education programmes to empower them rather than talk to 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 help change the hearts and minds of policymakers and those 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 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 genuinely can cope with that. And that’s what we want to address. So, brand audits are critical in holding those companies to account to make sure they’re investing in really ambitious programmes to stop plastic from 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’ll need to see more things like deposit return systems and bans on certain plastics moving forward because too much superfluous plastic is put into our world, along with products that have no long-term value to humanity.


Individuals can do various activities 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 what you’re most passionate about. Find an organisation that can commit to whatever aligns with your agenda– Surfers Against Sewage, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, or 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 essential to the health and well-being of everyone on the planet.


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


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity - 4th June 20

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