Despite its eye-catching name, Surfers Against Sewage probably owes its existence to plastic. “The advent of panty-liners meant you could really see sewage slicks. Condoms, panty-liners and other plastic refuse made for a visceral, and visual, reminder of pollution,” Chris Hines, surfer and co-founder of this small charity in Cornwall, recalled in Alex Wade’s book, Surf Nation.
Sick of ear, throat and gastric infections, he and others called a meeting in St Agnes village hall. A who’s who of the most committed, passionate surfers in Cornwall – and just about the whole village – turned out. It was 1990 and Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) was born.
Today the sewage has mostly gone, thanks to measures such as the EU’s Urban Waste Water Treatment directive. But SAS still exists, transformed from single-issue pressure group to marine conservation charity.
Plastic is the new sewage. And SAS’s fight against marine plastic pollution has just been massively boosted by “the Harry and Meghan effect”.
“A complete bolt from the blue,” said Hugo Tagholm, SAS’s chief executive, on the charity being chosen as one of seven to receive wedding gift donations by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
The unexpected royal patronage has seen a four-fold increase in donations (the charity cannot reveal how much that is), a surge in website hits, and priceless reputation enhancement. “Suddenly, people don’t think we’re just a bunch of surfers in a shack down at the beach. Suddenly, Surfers Against Sewage isn’t just a niche, quirky, little NGO. Suddenly, people realise we’re a really serious marine conservation charity.
“The global interest is phenomenal. We have never reached that many people in all of our history, ever,” said Tagholm.
SAS is still based in the old tin mining workings of Wheal Kitty, outside St Agnes. Its office – where its small staff of 19 staff are based – is on a headland where five-minute stroll can yield slowworms and adders and a spectacular view over Trevaunance Cove beach and passing dolphins on the north Cornish coast.
“Being here gives us authenticity rather than being marooned on a busy city street,” said Tagholm, who takes the Truro to Paddington sleeper about twice a week. He delights in creating a national and international agenda “from this far-flung corner of the UK”.
Back when it was formed, the SAS message spread via vanloads of surfers traversing the country chasing the waves. Soon activists were donning wetsuits and gas masks “and waving a six-foot inflatable turd underneath politicians’, councillors’ and local water authority apparatchiks’ faces whenever possible,” said Wade, surfer, lawyer, author, and SAS trustee. One water company’s annual awards was enhanced by activists invading the stage wielding a golden bog brush, he recalled.
“It’s gone from punk-like, very rootsy and edgy – sort of ‘Life’s a beach, and we want to sort the beach, but we still want to party’ – to a much slicker, really well-run professional campaigning organisation whose remit is well beyond just surfing,” he said.
Surfing has evolved too. No longer niche, now high street retailers sell trendy surfing apparel. Hardcore surfers still live their idyll of chasing endless sun around the world in board shorts. But “weekend warriors” – city professionals who descend on beaches in leisure time – are part of the community too.
Add in kayakers, swimmers, sailors, walkers, and SAS, which transformed from NGO to charity in 2012, believes it has unique reach. “You don’t have to be a hard core surfer from St Agnes to be part of SAS, you can be Mr Smith living in Birmingham, interested in protecting beaches,” said Tagholm.
“I think we attract an audience that any other charity would struggle to attract,” he said, boasting an energetic, committed, cooler demographic than many others, and helped by being the nominated charity to a number of festivals, and through alignments with musicians such as Ben Howard and Jack Johnson.
“We are really small. Nationally and internationally, it’s a micro-business,” said Tagholm. With a turnover of £1.3m, it’s a “small charity with a big voice” that likes to punch above its weight. Which means, he said, the impact of the “Harry and Meghan effect” is far greater than it would be on larger organisations.
Since 2008, when Tagholm became chief executive, volunteer numbers have soared from 1,000 to 70,000. These are the “canaries in the coal mine” – people who actively use the coastline, see its toxic tidelines and the impacts of climate change and coastal developments.
SAS’s 155 regional volunteers reps organise beach cleans – 1,200 beaches last year – and help orchestrate campaigns. The idea for the most recent, a Plastic Free Parliament, came to Tagholm while stirring his coffee with a plastic spoon in the Houses of Parliament after a meeting of the Protect Our Waves all-party parliamentary group set up by the charity to discuss marine conservation. It aims to eliminate single-use plastic from parliament by next year.
World Oceans Day, on 8 Jun, saw a relaunch of its first international campaign, Plastic Free Communities. So far 350 communities – in villages, towns and cities collectively representing 24 million people – are working towards gaining plastic-free status. It involves a five-step guide, inspired by the Fair Trade status scheme.
Plastic Free Galapagos is another initiative. And, since the royal wedding, SAS has been contacted by groups and communities from across the globe asking for help and co-operation in adopting similar schemes. It’s been swift to embrace these opportunities. Nifty, quick on its toes, and able to respond swiftly are among the attributes of being so small, said Tagholm, compared to large, perhaps more risk averse charities.
It has campaigned on plastic bags ban and deposit return schemes, sets up Ocean Club and Ocean schools on beaches for children, and has a place at the table at international marine conservation conferences.
Perhaps more in tune with its original objectives, SAS still keeps a wary eye on water quality. Surfers swallow 10 times more sea water than swimmers, which makes them the perfect candidates for testing. “Beach Bums” is “an interesting and intimate” survey testing rectal swabs from 300 volunteers researching antibiotics resistance.
Like sewage, said Tagholm, plastic needs an “upstream solution”. Unlike sewage, where there are a finite number of water companies and easily visible pipes, the plastic comes from everywhere.
In reality, the beach clean-ups, though good for raising awareness, can make little lasting difference when the sources of the plastic pollutants remain.
“We can’t pick our way out of this one,” It needs “brave legislation” and incentives, and a thorough overhaul of our systems which show we are “doing thing wrong”, he said. He is optimistic, placing his faith in technology as being part of the solutions. “Plastic is the one pollutant that has truly galvanised every part of society.”
On nearby Porthtowan beach, as he and his team nip out for a quick lunchtime surf, the sands looks clean. Bend down, though, and examination of one small square foot, revealed hundreds and hundreds of “mermaids tears” – the tiny lentil-sized nurdles, or pellets, used to make nearly all our plastic products. They escape from factories, or ships. “They’re known as mermaids tears because they are on the beach, and the mermaid’s aren’t happy,” said Tagholm.
This is truly the plastic age. As it all grinds down to dust, it will, he predicts, leave a rainbow-coloured layer of sediment for future geologists. “Hopefully, a very thin layer, if we manage to wean ourselves off plastics.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010