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.”
Among retailers and manufacturers, they talk of “the Blue Planet effect”. The BBC series, screened late last year, was the moment that many of us realised the catastrophic impact our use of plastics was having on the world’s oceans. Scenes such as a hawksbill turtle snagged in a plastic sack, the albatrosses feeding their chicks plastic or the mother pilot whale grieving for her dead calf, which may have been poisoned by her contaminated milk, are impossible to unsee.
It’s a crisis that affects us all, and the facts make for dispiriting reading. If nothing changes, one study suggests that by 2050 our oceans will have more plastic swimming around, by weight, than fish. It’s already estimated that one third of fish caught in the Channel contain plastic; another piece of research found that “top European shellfish consumers” could potentially consume up to 11,000 pieces of microplastic a year.
Suddenly our use of plastics is firmly on the political and cultural agenda. While impassioned individuals have been pushing to reduce our use of plastics for a few years, the volume of the debate has been turned up dramatically in recent months.
There is hope, too, that the message is getting across. The 5p charge on carrier bags, introduced in 2015, has led to an 85% drop in their use across England; an astonishing 9bn bags. Here, we highlight pioneers who are tackling the issue of plastics in creative ways.
Chelsea Briganti and Leigh Ann Tucker: ‘Imagine a lemon-flavour straw and a grapefruit cup or a vanilla straw for your iced latte’
Across the US, around 500m plastic straws are used and discarded every single day. “We could fill 125 school buses,” says Leigh Ann Tucker, co-founder of Loliware. The straws are made from polypropylene, a petroleum by-product, which is technically recyclable in large formats, but this is practically impossible with something the size of a straw. “So they end up as landfill or ocean pollutants,” Chelsea Briganti, Loliware’s other half, chips in. “We’re drowning in our plastic.”
Britain sucks, too. Here, we throw away an estimated 8.5bn straws annually, easily the most in Europe. In London alone, more straws are used than the whole of Italy. Most campaigns focus on getting rid of plastic straws or using longer-lasting or biodegradable alternatives and these have had considerable traction – now the UK government has announced a consultation on banning plastic straws.
However, Briganti and Tucker have a more playful solution. This summer in the US, and next year in the UK, they are launching the Lolistraw, a straw that you can drink from and then eat – they call it “biodegr(edible)”.
The main ingredient is seaweed, which can have different flavours or nutrients added. The material can also be fashioned into cups and lids, all of which can be munched on after you’ve finished drinking.
“Imagine a lemon straw with a blood orange lid and a grapefruit cup,” says Briganti, in a call from Beacon, New York, where Loliware has its offices in an old silk factory. “Or a flavoured vanilla straw for your iced latte. There’s an inherent idea that there needs to be a trade-off, but actually we can offer something more exciting. We want to invigorate the discussion of ‘What does sustainability mean now? And how does that benefit me?’, rather than asking people to compromise as a consumer.”
The neologisms do not end there: Loliware has also created a designation called “hypercompostable”. “We wanted to distinguish ourselves from industrial compostable materials such as PLA [polylactic acid] plastic, which is often made from GM corn, because we wanted to show people what real compostability means,” explains Briganti. “If this cup or straw ends up in a waterway, it’ll simply dissolve; if it ends up in the natural environment, it will break down in 60 days.” PLA, meanwhile, though technically biodegradable, can take a long time to decompose (anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years in a landfill) and also needs to be kept separate when it’s recycled because it can contaminate the recycling stream.
Loliware launched in March 2015, but Briganti and Tucker had been working together since they’d met a few years earlier at the Parsons School of Design in New York. Their first product was an edible cup and it immediately caused a stir. In October 2015, Loliware pitched on Shark Tank – the US version of Dragons’ Den – and there was a “shark brawl” as all of the entrepreneurs tore strips off each other to invest.
The original cup proved popular – deals were sealed with the Four Seasons hotel group, 60,000 were bought by Absolut and so on – but at nearly a unit, it was too expensive for mainstream penetration.
That has changed with a new material they call Lolizero, which is “cost-competitive” with paper and PLA. Loliware is currently in discussion with global chains in the coffee and fast-food sectors, as well as more upmarket chains, about using its cups, lids and straws. “Just to give you an idea,” says Tucker. “One big account, replacing 10% of their straws, is so significant it’s in the hundreds of millions.”
Briganti and Tucker are confident their products will make a big dent in the single-use drinks market – and they’re especially proud to have made an impact as a pair of female innovators.
“Women solving the challenges for Mother Earth, if you will,” Briganti says with a laugh. “We have a direct connection with her.”
Vin and Omi: ‘People ask “Is this silk?” No, it’s 11 small Evian bottles’
The eco fashion designers Vin and Omi are tricky men to pin down. They don’t like to use their real names. They are vague about their ages and where they live, though it’s usually either London or New York. It’s not impossible to find photos of them, but they often wear masks or, as was the case at end of one catwalk show, cardboard boxes with holes hastily punched for their eyes. “The Daily Mail called us the Banksys of fashion,” says Omi with a giggle, the slighter of the pair and originally from Singapore, when we meet at the Andaz hotel in east London.
Perhaps inevitably, the pair dislike the tag “fashion designers” too, though they concede this objection is getting harder to sustain now they have shown their clothes a dozen times at London fashion week. They also have enough celebrity admirers to fill Grazia many times over: Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus have all worn Vin + Omi. Walking in their shows they’ve had rappers, Jane Horrocks, the boxer Nicola Adams and “someone from Made in Chelsea”.
But what’s certainly true is that Vin and Omi do not really fit in the fashion world. In an industry famed for waste, excess and ethically dubious practices, they try to do things the right way. They started in 2004, working with latex – “really organic and sustainable!” says Omi – and a doomed attempt to make it breathable. This led them on to plastics and a quest to make beautiful, tactile garments from recycled materials.
“We’re on the cover of Recycling & Waste World soon,” mock-boasts Vin, who has a background as a sculptor and in public art projects.
“It’s brilliant,” adds Omi; away from work, the pair have been married for 17 years. “Instead of Vogue, we get Waste World.”
And yet perhaps the day when they appear in both those market‑leading publications isn’t too far away. Scattered around the hotel room are a selection of clothes, made from 12 fabrics unique to Vin + Omi. They are vibrant and outlandish, some are plain bizarre, but what’s really surprising is how enjoyable they are to hold. Most are made from recycled and often salvaged plastics, but there’s also a no-kill fleece and a “leather-esque” vest made from chestnut skins.
“When the first T-shirt made from plastic came back we were amazed – it was softer than a normal cotton T-shirt by far,” says Vin. “That had to come from Canada, which was a shame, but people would ask, ‘Is this silk?’ And we’d say, ‘No, it’s 11 small plastic Evian bottles.’”
Perhaps their biggest champion is Debbie Harry. Last year, they created the wardrobe for Blondie’s world tour: 12 pieces all made from recycled or salvaged plastic included blouses, capes and an especially eye-catching smock inscribed with “Stop Fucking the Planet” in block capitals. “Debbie said, ‘Just design me anything,’” recalls Vin. “And we said, ‘Are you sure? Right, it’s going to be Stop Fucking the Planet and you’re wearing it.’ And she did.”
Vin and Omi certainly enjoy a mischievous stunt. They are currently collecting Coca-Cola bottles. The beverage giant sells more than 110bn single-use plastic bottles every year according to Greenpeace, and has promised to collect and recycle the equivalent of all its packaging by 2030, but has been lambasted by the environmental group for not setting a target on reducing the amount of plastic it production. When they have enough bottles, Vin and Omi will create a lavish garment and hand-deliver it to Coca-Cola’s CEO. Omi smiles, “The note will say, ‘Look, we can help bring your quota down. You can use this for your marketing.’”
Until now, Vin and Omi have concentrated on one-off, high-fashion pieces, but in the next year or so, they would like to open a shop in London selling more affordable designs. They also hope that more established labels will start to follow their path. “Eventually, plastic will be banned,” predicts Vin, “but in the interim period, if all designers did what we were doing on a larger scale, there would be no plastic in the ocean. They would pay to have salvage operations, because they’d get free raw material. It’s a lot of planning, but it’s worth it.”
Rodrigo García González and Pierre-Yves Paslier: ‘Corporations think they can keep on with the current system but people are desperate to try something else’
When people hear the concept for Ooho!, they often assume it’s a joke. Much like the notion of food pills, the idea of water delivered in a transparent membrane you swallow whole seems too futuristic for 2018. “When we started crowdfunding, people called us fake news,” says Pierre-Yves Paslier, the 30-year-old French co-founder of Skipping Rocks Lab, the east London-based startup that makes Ooho!. “They couldn’t believe it was a real thing.”
“We had to organise events for investors,” adds 33-year-old co-founder, Rodrigo García González, a Spaniard, “so they could touch it, taste it and see it was real.”
I can confirm that Ooho! very much exists, but there is definitely something bizarre about popping the little pouches in your mouth. First, you explode it in your cheek and get a pleasant rush of filtered water. Then you decide what to do with the membrane, which is made from seaweed – you can spit it out – it is biodegradable in four to six weeks – or you can chew it. “It has a bit of texture, it doesn’t really have a specific taste,” explains Paslier. “It’s a texture found a lot in south-east Asian food, but we are not very familiar with it in the west.”
García González and Paslier met while studying for a masters in innovation design engineering, offered jointly by the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London. The idea for Ooho!, says García González, was borrowed from the natural world: “In nature, to contain liquids, such as fruits or eggs, they normally use membranes. It’s the most efficient way to contain any type of liquid, because you need the minimum amount of material.” This led them on to spherification, a process invented in the 1950s that was then used to make fake caviar and had a revival in 2003 at Ferran Adrià’s modernist restaurant, elBulli. Since their discovery, Skipping Rocks Lab has been working out how to refine and package its offering.
There is obviously a market to disrupt here. It’s estimated that 1m plastic bottles are bought every minute around the world. García González and Paslier cheerfully accept that it would be better if everyone carried reusable bottles and there were plenty of water fountains. However, until that’s the case, they believe Ooho! can fill a gap at music festivals, running events, offices and takeaway lunch spots. Ultimately, sachets will be delivered by an on-site dispenser like a coffee machine. These should start rolling out later in the year.
Skipping Rocks Lab believes its technology could be adapted to face other challenges such as disposable cutlery or coffee cups. And its experience of crowdfunding suggests that there is public demand. Recently, it set out to raise £400,000 via Crowdcube; in the event, 900 investors pledged almost £850,000. “People are ready for an alternative,” says Paslier. “The corporations think they can keep on with the current system but people are desperate to switch to something else.”
It might seem surprising that a European-led company would choose Brexit Britain as a base, but García González and Paslier insist they are happy here. They have received strong support from Imperial College and Innovate UK and have a close relationship with other startups such as Aeropowder, which creates new materials from waste feathers. “It’s still really great to be here,” says Paslier. “The clean-tech sector is booming.”
Siân Sutherland:‘What we’re asking for is difficult, but we have to turn off the plastic tap’
“I’m probably your least likely eco-warrior,” says Siân Sutherland, a 56-year-old British entrepreneur and co-founder of the campaign group A Plastic Planet. I have an idea what she means – she has glitter on her jacket and bag and her blond hair is flecked with blue – but I ask her to clarify. “There’s a bit of a mould isn’t there, where you think, ‘She’s a right old activist.’ You know, knitted armpits, sandals. But there’s a whole new wave now – it doesn’t have to define your look.”
For most of her life, Sutherland had given little thought to the environment. In her 20s, she opened and ran a Michelin-starred restaurant in Soho; she has also set up a design and branding agency and founded a skincare brand for pregnant women. “I did that for 10 years in the UK and the US, so you can imagine that my personal plastic footprint is huge,” she says. “It’s a very competitive space and I didn’t really think about what happens to those white plastic bottles afterwards.”
A Plastic Planet was born when she was asked by an old friend, Frederikke Magnussen, to help with the launch of a documentary, A Plastic Ocean. This was 2016 and, says Sutherland, you had to “strong-arm” anyone to take any interest in the subject. But she and Magnussen quickly realised that this was a problem that went far beyond the oceans and started their campaign.
“You go to your supermarket and it’s a sea of plastic and you have no choice,” says Sutherland. “It’s almost like this human right has been taken from us. So this is really about two unreasonable women saying, ‘Why can it be that we’re now made to feel bad about our shopping habits and we have no choice?’”
Right now, A Plastic Planet has a very straightforward goal: a plastic-free aisle in every supermarket. It focuses on this area because this is where Sutherland and Magnussen believe they can make the greatest difference. In Europe in 2016, 40% of all plastic was used for packaging, and nearly half of that wrapped food and drink. Earlier this year, a Guardian investigation estimated that British supermarkets were responsible for more than 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste every year; that’s enough to bury Greater London 2.5cm deep.
“It’s indefensible for us to use something that is so indestructible as plastic, which we now know is going to exist on the planet for centuries, to just wrap our perishable food and drink in,” Sutherland seethes. “It makes no sense. We just got it wrong.”
A Plastic Planet’s campaign has already made global headlines. The world’s first plastic-free supermarket aisle opened in February in Amsterdam. Ekoplaza, a Dutch chain, had around 700 products at its pilot launch and everything was packaged, just in glass, metal, cardboard or a compostable, plant-based biofilm.
“We really had no idea it would be the media storm that it was,” says Sutherland. “Personally I did 55 interviews in 24 hours. But the story is not: the people of Amsterdam can buy plastic-free; this is a message to the world that we don’t need to wait five years. We don’t need to wait 25 years definitely. I’ll be dead. Half the planet will be dead. We can do it now.”
In the UK, Sutherland has not yet spoken to Theresa May or Michael Gove, the environment secretary, though she offers them both an open invitation. But she has had discussions with the firm Iceland, which has committed to eliminate plastic packaging for all its own-brand products by 2023, and also the Co-op, Asda, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer: “I love the fact that this is not an affordability issue and it can’t be.” A Plastic Planet also receives inquiries from around the world – recently Portugal, Korea and China. “China will save the world in my opinion,” she says.
Sutherland does not lecture individuals – “I’m no plastic saint” – but she thinks the main thing we can do is support any supermarket with a plastics-reduction scheme.
“The quicker they do this, we the public have to make it a success,” she says. “Because I know what we’re asking for is difficult; it is inconvenient, it might have a cost implication. But it’s essential. We can’t hide behind words like ‘recycling’ any more. They are not the solution. We have to turn off the plastic tap.”
Bex Band and Erin Bastian: ‘Every change that’s happened in the history of mankind has come from individuals taking a stance’
For the inaugural Paddle Pickup last year a group of women kayaked from Bristol to London. They covered 300km in 15 days, negotiated 151 canal locks and collected 3,240 pieces of plastic pollution. “We pulled out all sorts of weird stuff,” says 29-year-old adventurer Bex Band, who came up with the idea along with Erin Bastian, also 29. “We found a Santa Claus, chairs, bikes, a rubber duck, Viagra. A bag of class A drugs … ”
What did she do with those? “I disposed of the contents and took the plastic away,” Band laughs. “And I thought: ‘Maybe that’s not the right thing to do. Maybe the fish wouldn’t appreciate that.’”
Band first made contact with Bastian, a sea kayak guide and founder of Evoke Adventure, after seeing her website: “We’re both in the adventure scene and it’s quite a small scene,” says Band. The idea for Paddle Pickup came up in that first conversation and two months later they were on the water. The trip was great fun, but their main takeaway was the realisation of just how dirty Britain’s waterways have become. “I had a day in Reading where it was so bad we weren’t even scraping the surface,” says Bastian. “And you can’t help thinking, ‘What difference are we actually making? It’s not even 1% of the plastic that’s there.’”
“It’s a constant battle, where I’m trying to fight this hopelessness,” adds Band. “But if we don’t have hope, we have nothing. People say ‘What’s the point?’ But every change that’s ever happened in the history of mankind has come from individuals taking a stance.”
So, undeterred, Paddle Pickup returns at the end of May and this time they are kayaking from one end of Wales to the other, via the river Severn, again collecting plastic as they go. This trip is 240km, and it’s divided into three, five-day sections. A few places are still available; no previous kayaking experience required.
Why just women? “A lot of women struggle to get involved in adventure because it’s such a competitive and masculine environment and they’re lacking in confidence,” says Band, whose company Love Her Wild specialises in all-female expeditions. “So by making it all women, it breaks down that barrier.”
If last time is anything to go by, the trip will be hard but rewarding. And it might just be the start of something: one woman from the 2017 Paddle Pickup is now cycling around New Zealand, speaking in schools about plastic pollution; another is rowing across the Pacific Ocean. “It’s a ripple effect,” says Bastian. “You go on one adventure and then you’re like: ‘Now I can think bigger.’”
Band and Bastian hope they can inspire informal Paddle Pickups all over the country – and that, as word spreads, change will follow. Band says: “My favourite message from the last trip was one guy who said that he’d read about us in the local paper. He went to buy his lunch that morning as usual and he didn’t buy a water bottle, he used a reusable one. And he said he wasn’t going to buy a [disposable] water bottle again. That’s amazing: we can take away the plastic, but that doesn’t solve the long-term problem. We need people to change their habits.”