Surfers Against Sewage was born in England in 1990 from surfers who were fed up with dodging turds, condoms and tampons in their local lineups. In the nearly 30 years since being established, Surfers Against Sewage has become one of the ocean’s most authentic voices in the UK. Through the help of their visually impactful campaigns, like putting on gas masks and flying giant helium-filled balloons shaped like pieces of poop outside the offices of England’s lawmakers, and their restless behind-the-scenes work, Surfer’s Against Sewage has contributed to the dramatic improvement of England’s offshore water quality.
Over the decades, membership, allies and volunteers have extended beyond the small surfy world to the mainstream. Their focus has broadened to the other issues threatening the ocean as well. Last May, at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the organization received an endorsement from England’s Royal Family in front of over a billion people. Since then, the outpouring of support from concerned communities aligning themselves with Surfer’s Against Sewage’s mission has grown exponentially. Currently, the organization is channeling this new attention to help dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that continues to pollute the ocean.
SURFER called up Surfers Against Sewage’s charismatic Chief Executive, Hugo Tagholm, to learn more about the organization and how they’ve managed to gain the backing of highly influential government officials.
Is plastic the new sewage?
We've always been driven by people's experiences in the water, whether they're surfers, doing other sports in the water or walking on the beach. Back in the 1990's, sewage pollution was a chronic issue and surfers were in the front line of that. Our campaigns, coupled with huge pieces of environmental legislation that came in from Europe, helped really drive the improvement of water quality around the UK. So we've gone from what would've been just 27 percent of beaches passing the minimum water quality standards to now almost 100 percent of our beaches passing that minimum standard.
Now we're a much broader organization, we still work on water quality, but the really big issue that everyone sees now is plastic pollution. And again it's the same driver. Back in 1990 surfers were sick of seeing sewage remnants on our beaches, whether that was condoms or sanitary items. People were actually getting sick from the sewage pathogens and now people are sick of walking over tidelines of plastic pollution, especially on beautiful pristine beaches that should be better protected.
How did the royal endorsement come about? Did that take you by surprise?
Yeah, that came as a bolt out of the blue! You know Prince Harry and Meghan are very dynamic young people. Meghan has a Californian heritage, so she's been exposed to surfing, Prince Harry has also been exposed to surfing in his sort of formal public role and personally. We were taken by surprise when we got a phone call from their office saying we'd been selected. It was a great honor.
We think that it has really come about because of the youthful, energetic campaigning and community activations we undertake. We have a really distinct voice and energy, and we're really driven by an exciting interaction with the ocean—surfing and other activities of course. We think that sort of captured their imagination.
Have you noticed a difference in Surfers Against Sewage's events from before and after the royal wedding?
To be able to talk to a truly huge and global audience about protecting waves, oceans and beaches for the future as part of the royal wedding back in May, on a beautiful sunny day, was an immense privilege. We reached over a billion people with our communications and that really helped boost participation in beach cleans and other volunteering programs. It brought more people into our plastics-free communities agenda and certainly helped raise much more money for the cause and do much more good to the environment.
We've definitely seen a huge upsurge in volunteering this year. Last year we mobilized a huge number of volunteers, 30,000 people joined us around the beaches of the UK. But this year we're set to hit 75,000 people joining us in picking up plastic and tackling that pollution at the frontline, joining us in campaign actions for better regulation around plastics.
Just last week I welcomed His Royal Highness Prince Charles to our office to update him on what we're doing. To talk him through our campaigns and to introduce him to business leaders who are trying to change the way they do business to eliminate plastics to protect our environment. That was a huge honor. He met our team, big-wave surfers, other activists, it was great. At the end of the day we presented him with a traditional wooden belly board which was made from oak that had been taken from his Highgrove estate.
What was Prince Charles' reaction when you handed him the board? Do you think he felt that energy that a surfer feels when they put a new board under the arm?
You know what he said to me? He said, 'Is this one of those old man boards [laughs]?' That's a bit of a hard one for me to come back on but I think I just said to him, "Look, if you want, just take it on holiday." He's a really passionate person about this and his heart is really into environmental causes. We thought it was a really fitting tribute to the time he spent with us to give him something that was made out of a traditional material that didn't have any plastic in it and that was made by a local artisan.
I never really dreamt that when I took the helm of the organization in 2008, when it was about to be folded, that I would be welcoming Prince Charles to the office to show him what we're doing. It's great to have the future King of England on our side.
When legislation passed in California to ban plastic bags, lots of people threw a fit about the new law but eventually everyone adapted. Do you think the banning of straws will follow that same trajectory?
We've got to be realistic. Plastic is a very useful material that can help us do a lot of really amazing things. It's a material that's helped us explore every part of our oceans, outer space and mountains. That's because of the properties that it has, it's lightweight, it's flexible it's abundant and it's been an amazing thing. But those same qualities make it a really bad pollutant because it's so light, abundant and flexible that it can be broken up by winds and tides and get everywhere. It's been the only real pollutant of our times that everyone can respond and react to in a big way, from their day-to-day actions, to legislation and to business. The broad consensus is that there is too much plastic escaping into the environment. The solutions need more work to deliver that consensus, so we're starting with the low hanging fruit of plastic bags. We campaigned for two years to get a five pence charge on plastic bags here in the UK, and that's already eliminated over nine billion plastic bags-which is about 85 percent of the plastic bags distributed by our supermarkets. We're doing the same on plastic bottles and straws out of circulation wherever possible. So there's lots of different single-use plastics that we can get rid of, reduce drastically or trap in the recycling economy.
The challenge will come when the embedded plastics will start to be explored–the plastics contained in your car tires, paints and carpets. We really need stronger materials that don't shed micro-plastics when you're driving to your surf spot or walking around the streets of San Clemente. That's an area we really need to be conscious of at this time.
I think it's an exciting time! I often use the analogy of the mobile phone. When you and I were kids, the concept of a mobile phone that could do everything that it does today was space-age stuff. The thought that I would be able to facetime with my brothers on the other side of the world or with my friends in far-flung places was completely bonkers. Who knows what will happen with plastics? Maybe we'll be shredding up our plastic packaging and adding it to our stir-fry. Maybe we'll have a whole new material that won't cause any harm at all. We need to see a convergence of business innovation and government legislation that both incentivizes and penalizes businesses. We also need to continue to build a community movement that can keep the pressure on in the right place to deliver a plastic free future and plastic free oceans.
For more on Surfers Against Sewage, click here.
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