PEN spoke to Emily Haggett of Surfers Against Sewage about the Plastic Free Coastlines project and the importance of removing waste from marine environments.
Each day 38.5 million single-use plastic bottles are used in the UK, with less than 60% recycled. On average, each person in the UK produces 175kg of plastic packaging each year. As a result, plastic in the marine environment can be both pollutant and harmful; the material can injure and drown animals as well as being potentially fatal should they ingest it. Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) is a national marine conservation and campaign charity based in the UK which aims to facilitate communities to act in order to protect oceans, beaches and wildlife from human pollution. Through education, volunteering, clean-up operations, parliamentary events and campaigns, SAS aims to fulfil its mission in de-polluting the marine environment within our generation.
Plastic Free Coastlines (PFC) is one such initiative looking to find a solution to the environmental threats of plastic waste and their impact upon marine wildlife. It operates on a two-tiered approach which involves preventing the problem at source, and by physically clearing pollution from beaches and coastal paths. Through asking volunteers to sign up and commit to an Individual Action Plan to reduce plastic use, as well as by enlisting community leaders, SAS and its PFC project aims to establish 125 plastic-free communities by 2020. Those who follow the guidelines will be awarded a ‘Plastic Free Community’ status.
Pan European Networks spoke to SAS project officer Emily Haggett about the initiative, and what the removal of pollutant waste from coastlines and from the marine environment can do for society, the environment, and for the wellbeing of marine life.
What action has Surfers Against Sewage been taking to reduce or remove plastic pollution, and in which other ways can this issue be addressed?
2017 was a big year for SAS as we launched our Plastic Free Coastlines project. This project is all about creating a joined-up approach within communities to combat single-use plastics and prevent them damaging our environment. The project works with communities to help them achieve five different objectives to become classed as a ‘Plastic Free Coastlines Approved’ community. Since its launch, the project is now being initiated into more than 90 communities by more than 120 volunteers across the UK, the Republic of Ireland and Portugal. Our first PFC-approved community – the town of Penzance in Cornwall, UK – gained its Plastic Free Community status on 4 December 2017, and our volunteers working within that area have massively reduced reliance on single-use plastics.
Obviously, the aim of this project it to reduce the flow of single-use plastics into the environment, but sadly, much of this is already there. Roughly 8-12 million tonnes of plastic pollution enter our marine environment each year. Therefore, SAS runs beach clean-ups every year to try and remove this.
We have actually been tackling plastic pollution since around 2008. Each year our volunteers are responsible for around 1,000 beach clean-ups. Our Autumn Beach Clean Week, which took place in October last year, saw our volunteers remove 35,000kg of plastic pollution from the UK’s beaches, in which more than 11,500 single-use plastic bottles were included.
SAS is also fundamental in lobbying the government to implement laws to change our use of single-use plastic items. Earlier in 2017 we handed a petition to the UK government calling for the support of a Deposit Return Scheme to be introduced to the UK; with over 250,000 signatures, the petition was one of the largest ever environmental requests to be handed to the Prime Minister.
A great way to tackle plastic litter in your own life is to sign up to ‘Join The Resistance’, a sister initiative working against single-use plastics (plasticfree.org.uk). Through this action, those who enlist receive a free individual action plan containing handy information and tips on how to reduce personal reliance on single-use plastics.
How important is it that plastic pollution is removed from the world’s marine environment?
It is of the utmost importance to remove plastic pollution from the world’s beaches and oceans. Not only is plastic waste in the marine environment unsightly, but it poses an extreme hazard to marine life and human health. Marine life is continuously at threat from drowning, due to entanglement in marine litter, as well as harm caused by starvation due to the ingestion of marine plastics. These break down into microscopic pieces due to different environmental elements, and are then absorbed by aquatic animals – from dolphins, seals and turtles, etc. to smaller species such as shrimp and krill – and the harmful toxins and chemicals on their surface are small enough to advance through the food chain into human digestive systems, where it is suspected that they are causing adverse health conditions.
Whilst the production rates of plastic continue to grow year on year, the issue may approach a tipping point if not addressed soon. This is why PFC was created: to provide people with the means to raise awareness and to enable their contribution in solving the problem. We need to empower people, to create a lifestyle and an attitude change towards the way we use plastics, if we want to solve the problems that arise from them.
The UN has called the ocean’s plastic a ‘planetary crisis’. How does it feel to know that you have pioneered work towards a universal goal of plastic-free coastlines, as well as having achieved the first such community in the UK?
It’s fantastic that other influential bodies such as the UN are recognising the issue of marine plastic pollution as a global crisis. It’s reassuring to see that others are as concerned as us and want to take action. However, we need to remember that recognising the issue is only the first step – combatting and tackling it is a further challenge. We need everyone to work together on this, and if we can implement Plastic Free Coastlines in the UK – which has been extremely successful with more than 90 communities on-board to make these changes – we can implement it anywhere. Everyone should engage with the project as it’s available for (and beneficial to) everyone.
Plastic Free Coastlines Project Officer
Surfers Against Sewage
This article will appear in Pan European Networks: Government 24, which will be published in January, 2018.