How Surfers Against Sewage are saving the world one wave at a time

PUBLISHED: 16:55 17 May 2019 | UPDATED: 16:59 17 May 2019

Photo credit: Surfers Against Sewage

Photo credit: Surfers Against Sewage


As World Environment Day and World Oceans Day takes place this month, Bethan Andrews talks to Surfers Against Sewage about their commitment to tackling plastic in our oceans

What makes you proud to live and dream in Cornwall? Perhaps it's the beautiful clean sands, the hidden coves where the wildlife is free to roam, or perhaps it's the incredible surf? There is no denying that this part of the country is a special place but, unless you've been burying your head in the sand, it's also impossible to ignore the growing worries that come with being so connected to the ocean - both emotionally and physically.

Recent reports show that there are approximately 51 trillion microscopic pieces of plastic in our ocean, weighing 269,000 tons - about the same as 1345 adult blue whales. It's a weight that a lot of people are struggling to ignore, particularly those within coastal communities such as Cornwall.

Luckily for us, we've got Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) shouting loud and clear about pollution from their base on the headland in St Agnes. Established in 1990 by people, many of who were surfers, who were sick of seeing sewage in our seas in the 1980s, SAS started its days in Porthtowan village hall discussing how to make our oceans cleaner.

Fast-forward to today and having transformed from an NGO to a charity in 2012, SAS is widely recognised as one of the UK's leading marine conservation charities with CEO Hugo Tagholm pushing boundaries in the fight against pollution in our oceans. But this time round, plastic is the new sewage.

From conducting research, pulling together communities of volunteers, representing marine issues in parliament, educating and inspiring, SAS is going from strength to strength. "The proof is in the pudding!" exclaims Tagholm. "We now organise the biggest beach cleaning community in the UK, we've got a network of regional representatives in all corners of the country who are fully equipped and fully empowered people, and some real impact that has been noticed by government and royalty."

Huge Tagholm. Photo credit: Andy HughesHuge Tagholm. Photo credit: Andy Hughes

What is great to hear too is that Cornwall in particular has really got involved. 'There has been a dramatic uptake in beach cleaning, school programmes and in a general interest," Tagholm continues.

So, what would he say have been the biggest achievements for SAS? A hard question to answer I would imagine, given the sheer scale of what they have achieved over the years. "We were instrumental in bringing in the plastic bag charge, something that people live with everyday, reducing plastic bag circulation by 85 per cent," smiles Tagholm.

"We've also got both Scotland and England to commit to a deposit return scheme on plastic bottles which will eliminate millions of beverage containers from our environment." Not to mention they pioneered the provision of real time water quality information for the UK and have more than 330 beaches on their safer seas app. "It's been quite a decade!" agrees Tagholm.

But there's a real local feel to SAS, despite its huge success across the country. It's somewhat humbling that they are still based in the old tin mining workshops of Wheal Kitty, just on the outskirts of St Agnes and overlooking the surf. "I love creating good jobs for people in Cornwall and big influence from Cornwall too," says Tagholm. "I think it's really important. We are a dynamic, national charity proudly based in this incredible county."

It's this local connection that sets the charity apart from others. The audience is cooler, fiercely committed, and more emotionally attached than many others. "We very much represent people who live and breathe the coastline and we now represent 300,000 supporters," says Tagholm. "Our ability to pivot around these people and to bring authenticity is important. I'm arguably the only chief executive in our sector that overlooks the ocean from my desk - it's important to have that connectivity with the sea. People often describe our members as the canary and the coalmine of these issues."

And SAS aren't the only people fighting for change in Cornwall either. Emily Stevenson, whose merits have been recognised by Sir David Attenborough himself, set up Beach Guardians with her father two years ago at 19 years old. Now a marine biologist, she works with communities to help them do their bit, provides knowledge and covers education, business, awareness, outreach, and research.

This year, she'll be taking her talks into schools across Cornwall. "It has been fantastic to get the message out there," says Stevenson. "But this year is all about pushing the education programme into every school in Cornwall - it's so important to all of our lives that we protect the natural resource on our doorstep."

It's not just about beach cleans and campaigning when it comes to plastic pollution either, it's about innovation too and one Newquay company is putting Cornwall on the map when it comes to this. Oltco, the UK's leading independent resin floor specialist, has released the world's first environmentally friendly driveway solution. Called Recycle Bound, the company is using waste plastic to create a unique resin bound blend. Sourced from a plastic recycling point, each square metre of Recycle Bound consists of the equivalent of 3,000 plastic straws.

It's hard to imagine how the plastic campaign could keep pushing forward and achieving on such a level, but Tagholm assures me that there is still a lot in the pipeline for this year for SAS. "We've got a new campaign called Generation Sea which is building a community of people with a positive voice towards the Environment Bill this summer," he says. "Our oceans are the life support mechanism for people on this planet and we need to really recognise that."

On that note, I know where I'll be this weekend, so why not join me on the beach and help turn the tide toward a plastic-free future in Cornwall?

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How can you help?

1. Join a local beach clean or contact SAS about organising your own. If you happen to pick up plastic on a walk on the beaches, use the SAS hashtag to raise awareness - #minibeachclean

2. Try switching to an environmentally friendly biodegradable bamboo toothbrush.

3. Plastic straws and cutlery are huge contributors to unnecessary plastic ending up in our oceans so start carrying around a metal reusable straw and cutlery in your bag.

4. Similarly, make the switch from plastic water bottles and always have a reusable water bottle in your bag. The same can be said for coffee cups, and with so many chic options out there, there is no excuse for not having one anymore!

5. Cornwall has done brilliantly well recently at introducing zero-waste and plastic free shops into its high streets. Why not try doing some of your shopping at one of these to cut down on unnecessary packaging?

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