A lone surfer stands on a plastic strewn beach. Photo: SAS.
A fearsome monster of the deep? Yes, indeed, the most evil of all ... a turtle-choking plastic bag. Photo: SAS.
The impressive haul of beach litter gathered in by SAS volunteers at Cromer beach. Photo: SAS.
Beach clean 2015 at Perranporth, Cornwall. Photo: Greg Martin / SAS.
Cleaning the waves: Surfers Against Sewage turns its fight to ocean plastic
2nd September 2015
For 25 years, a group of eco-aware surfers have been campaigning for cleaner waves, writes Summer Brooks. SAS was founded in 1990 to tackle sewage discharges into UK coastal waters, and now, bigger and stronger than ever, they are turning their focus to the global problem of ocean plastic - both picking it up on our beaches, and pushing for long term, global solutions.
Last year we were really proud that we hit the 10,000 mark in active, hands-on volunteers, this year we're hoping for 15,000 and by 2020 we hope to have reached 25,000 volunteers each year - all taking hands on action to protect their coastal environment.
It all began in 1990 with a group of surfers from St Agnes and Porthtowan in Cornwall who were sick of getting sick; unable to surf in their local spots due to waste being pumped out into the ocean.
What started out as a small pressure group is now internationally recognised for its efforts in saving our seas.
"They were sick of surfing with actual turds next to them, sewage - related debris, tampons, condom", says Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) Projects Manager Dom Ferris, who has been with the organisation for nearly six years.
"They were running the real risk of not just getting a bad gut, but actually getting lifelong debilitating illnesses. So they set about trying to change that."
The team at SAS has doubled since Dom joined, and they are supported by 60 volunteer representatives around the country from varied walks of life.
"We've got very professional people who are respected in their fields - doctors, teachers, sharkologists ... they give their time and their eyes and ears and expertise to help us achieve what we're trying to do, which is protecting the UK's beaches, oceans, waves and wildlife."
Campaigning for cleaner seas
It's been quite a remarkable journey for SAS, and the work they have done speaks volumes. In the early days, SAS battled with water companies to fight for new legislation for UK bathing waters, and today it is still a problem.
"In this country we have what's called a 'combined sewage system'", says Dom. That means that lots of water from storm drains and domestic drainpipes empties into in the same sewer pipes that carry human faeces. So all it takes is a heavy storm to overwhelm sewage works with massive volumes of mixed sewage and rainwater.
Councils are now using the building control system to require home owners to install soakaways instead of allowing their gutters to drain into sewers, while water companies are slowly raising the capacity of their sewage plants to handle storm flows. But there's still along way to go before the problem is solved, says Dom.
"After heavy rain, sewage is still discharging into our bathing waters when it shouldn't be, so it's still impacting on water quality and therefore people's health."
Marine litter and ocean plastic
Increasingly SAS is turning its focus to the health of the wider ocean, and the problem of marine plastic in particular. And while it's a global problem, keeping our oceans clean, like charity, begins at home.
SAS mobilise around 10,000 people to take part in their annual Big Spring Beach Clean which takes place in March at beaches all over the UK. Last year, people volunteered at 335 beach cleans, removing almost 60 tonnes of litter, most of it plastic, says Dom.
"Last year we were really proud that we hit the 10,000 mark in active, hands-on volunteers, this year we're hoping for 15,000 and by 2020 we hope to have reached 25,000 volunteers each year - all taking hands on action to protect their coastal environment."
But the problem also needs to be tackled internationally, he emphasises. "Marine litter is transboundary, we're not going sort that out on our own so we need to work our hardest here and share practices with everyone else. We're lucky enough to be a part of an amazing network of enviro-surf NGOs around the world, from Surfrider Europe, Surfrider USA, to Save the Waves.
"There is plenty to do here in the UK so if we just focus on our work and share best practice with other organisations then that's how we're going to achieve the overall objective."
While we understand that dropping a crisp packet or a wrapper on the floor is littering, he points out, it is still 'acceptable' to drop cigarette ends, and many of these end up in the ocean.
"I went to Denmark recently, to Copenhagen - beautiful clean city, but cigarette butts everywhere. One single cigarette butt is made from approximately 15,000 plastic fibres, it takes 12 years to break down in a marine environment and the chemicals within that one cigarette butt will pollute 8 litres of water."
Holding manufacturers to account
One of SAS's campaigns, 'Return to Offender' encourages people to send the litter they find back to the companies who manufactured it, says Dom.
"For example if you find a Lucozade bottle or a Pepsi bottle, or a Coca Cola bottle or a Walkers crisp wrapper on the beach, you can download the kit from our website which includes a letter to the manufacturer, package it up and send it back to them.
"This letter says that we know that it's not your fault that it's been dropped, but you can certainly do far more to educate people about littering, to minimise the impact of your packaging and to work really hard on changing the mind-set from 'flog it and forget it' to a 'cradle to cradle' mentality - from making it to remaking it, because at the moment they seem to just wash their hands of it once it leaves the shop."
It's also important to drastically curtail our reliance on 'single use' plastic objects like drinks bottles, beakers, water cups, takeaway containers and confectionery wrappers, says Dom.
"Part of the solution is to use short lived paper-based as opposed to plastic materials. Increasingly coffee shops are turning to cardboard cups, and some local authorities are forcing takeaways to use biodegradable packaging. And let's not forget: in the old days Mars bars came in waxed paper, and they could again."
SAS are also campaigning for a deposit scheme for drinks containers, giving used cans and plastic bottles a value - and so making them worth saving, or picking up - specially for children keen to earn a bit of extra pocket money.
In Germany such a system is working well: 98.5% of refillable plastic bottles are returned by consumers and the scheme has helped remove 1.2 billion one-way containers from Germany's streets.
Could we do the same here? We could, says Dom. "And if enough people rally to the cause and make a nuisance of themselves, I'm sure we will!"
Help at one of SAS's Big Spring Beach Cleans, which take place in March.
See the Return to Offender campaign page.
Summer Brooks is a journalism student living in Cornwall; she has become passionate about marine conservation and preserving coastlines around the country. See her blog here.
More on The Ecologist about marine litter:
- 'Fighting the plastic plague in our oceans' by Dr Mae Wan Ho;
- 'Ocean plastic plague threatens seabirds' by Chris Wilcox, Britta Denise Hardesty & Erik van Sebille.
- 'Five to 12 million tonnes of plastic are going into the ocean each year' by Britta Denise Hardesty & Chris Wilcox
- And yet more.
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