Are SAS growing beyond surfers, and attracting a broader base of support?
Yes, I mean widely speaking Surfers Against Sewage is a big misnomer, you know we are surfers – I surf, Andy surfs, Dom and Pete surf, David and Jack bodysurf, the whole team interacts with the sea and they love the sea – but we don’t just represent surfers, we represent anyone and everyone who loves and uses the sea – or even doesn’t use the sea and just wants to be part of what we do and believes in what we do. So that’s the “Surfers” part of it, and then the “Against” can remain, and the “Sewage” part is not really the lead of what we do any more. It’s a big part of what we do, we’ve got a big campaign, the Sewage Free Seas campaign at the moment which is a big opportunity to prevent sewage entering the seas through sewer overflows, but truthfully speaking the big zeitgeist campaign is marine litter.
We’ve seen all sort of community initiatives spring up over the last few years following on from the agenda that SAS, the Marine Conservation Society and other big charities have set, and lots of community groups are springing up because they truly see this issue at their beach. You can walk along any beach in the country and see plastic pollution on the high tide line and people have said enough is enough, this is environmental vandalism, there are big companies and corporates making money from packaging and over-packaging things and we want to take action, and we’re on a journey with that. We realise that even over the past few years the narrative has changed from people wanting to come out more and more, and they still will do that, but they’re now saying, we’re going to come out more and we’re going to pick up more, but how are we going to stop this litter getting in the sea, and the true win on marine litter will be stopping the flow of plastic into the ocean. It won’t be recovering and reusing it necessarily, although we are doing that with our initiative. And so that truly is the lead interest with our members, but there’s all sorts of other things – people want to be part of the advocacy of surf spots, talking about our sites of special surfing interest around the coastline, valuing them and promoting them in the right way, making sure that the public recognise them as unique entities.
It’s all too commonly thought in the public domain that you can get good waves anywhere on any beach you know, you just turn up and there’ll be waves, but a beach like Fistral or a reef like Porthleven or reefs like Thurso or Staithes, all of these are unique wonders of nature, you can’t just remake them. And so I think now we have a much broader remit. The first issue of Pipeline, the cover of that stated that SAS were set up as a single issue pressure group to end the marine sewage disposal, and we’ve evolved away from that, that isn’t all we do and we’re now a registered charity, we’re operating very effectively at community, corporate and government, legislative level, and it’s great to see that journey carry on.
Do you think that the “hands-on” events, such as beach cleans, help to engage people beyond simply paying a subscription or making a donation? Are they of value beyond simply removing litter from our beaches?
Absolutely. The community events, when the community gets together, one of the biggest things it does is to make local decision makers – whether they’re café or business owners, or councilors or politicians, it makes them listen. They see these people who are part of their electorate or in their constituency, their customers, and when you’ve got two or three hundred people coming along to the Big Spring Beach Clean at Penhale or when you’ve got BBC’s The One Show covering it, politicians realise that this is important and that people do care. The community action dovetails directly with things like our All Party Parliamentary Group in Westminster – there’s no way that we would have that group if people didn’t turn up and join us at these things around the country because politicians would say “why are we going to get together and support what you guys are saying”…so it’s really important that the community carries on growing and reacting with us.
Surfers Against Sewage have grown from a single-issue pressure group (campaigning against sewage pollution) into a much broader marine environmental charity that campaigns on a number of issues. How have the pressures on the coastal environment developed over the course of your tenure at the helm of SAS?
Well, without a doubt marine litter, even within the relatively short time (certainly if we’re looking at the whole lifespan of the planet), in the tiny amount of time that I’ve been here we’ve seen the marine litter debate change massively, with many more people coming to the forefront of it. We’ve seen evidence coming out about the sources of marine litter and it’s impacts upon marine species, and so there’s now a much greater appetite amongst global stakeholders. We’ve seen big innovations, things like the ocean clean-up project talking about trying to harvest and collect all of the plastic in the gyres, we’ve seen lots of community groups springing up, we’ve seen European legislators talking about how to ban things like microplastics and microbeads. It’s an interesting debate, and also I think that with climate change, the oceans have become front and centre to that debate, we see the impact on reefs and ironically reefs are one of the things that surfers rely on the most to get the best waves and reefs are under severe threat from climate change.
We see a broadening of these issues and then of course they’re all impacting the wildlife that we see –I’m sure that you’ve seen dead dolphins on the beach or entangled seals, and whether it’s fishing gear or other plastics killing animals, we get endless reports of whales with stomachs full of plastic bags or plastic detritus, and that’s why it’s so important to have campaigns like our Break the Bag Habit campaign where you get a seemingly tiny levy on plastic bags, which changes behavior and reduces the amount of plastic bags in circulation or given out at supermarkets by about 80%, and so you see that there’s a direct correlation with that and protecting the beach and the wildlife around the beach. It’s evolving fast both in terms of the impact of the issues, and the solutions to those. It’s also probably worth saying that there’s been a real change in looking at things like plastic because people say “it’s just rubbish, it’s just waste on the beach” but there’s now an increasing narrative around this being a really important resource and we can’t just chuck it away any more, it can’t end up in the sea because it’s too valuable to loose.
So we see initiatives springing up with innovators and disruptors like Bureo Skateboards making skateboards out of recovered fishing nets or carpet tiles made out of recovered and recycled marine litter. So you see innovation, but the ultimate innovation will be stopping this litter from ending up in the sea which is where we’re really focused on now, whether it’s getting people to refuse using single use plastic bottles with our Turn On the Tap campaign with Clean Cornwall, all of those things are important drivers to proper societal change and hopefully we’ll see an outright shift at some stage. We’re on a see-saw and we’re not quite at the tipping point but at some stage hopefully we will shift and we’ll all look back and say “why on earth were we giving out and using this many resources and this much packaging which was largely useless.”
It can’t all be doom and gloom, we have to be aspirational and have the courage to look to the future. I met the Australian author Tim Winton a few years ago and we were talking about how to remain optimistic in a time that’s pretty challenging for the environment and he said “you’ve got to have the courage to do what you do even with the knowledge that you may not see the change that you want to see within your lifetime” and so you’re not just doing it for you, you’re doing it to tip yourself towards that point, and that’s true. We’ve got to try. We’ve got one roll of the dice and we’ve got to try and convert that into as much positive change as we can.
It’s a really basic example, but I play a bit of 5-a-side football, my son loves football, and if you go to your local football fields the bins there are full of lucozade bottles and other bottles that are all in pristine condition, they just need a rinse out and they could go in the recycling, but they’re in the bin because there’s no recycling bin there. Why is society looking to go into the ocean to recover this stuff and make stuff? It needs to be taken out of the ocean, but actually we can stop it from getting into these landfills from where a lot of it ends up leaking into the sea. There’s a perverse nature to it. You walk through any city, you look in any bin, and it’s full of recycling. We’re talking about solutions at the end of that journey, the projects to clean up the ocean gyres are amazing projects in terms of their vision and depth, whether it will actually work or not, but the bottom line is don’t try and get everything at the end, get it at the beginning! Or even before then, by addressing the design process and material choices.