Plastic pollution in the ocean is a grim reality. Our aquatic playground is plagued with cast away litter, ghost gear, bottles – a smorgasbord of undesirable entities.
In the UK, organisation Sufers Against Sewage (SAS) has been campaigning to help keep our beaches and oceans clean for years. Last year, they launched a Plastic Free Coastlines initiative, calling on local people and communities to think about, and action, the eradication of plastic in the day-to-day ie getting rid of plastic straws, small changes that can have a huge impact on our marine environment.
And over the past few months, the discussion around single-use plastic has become a hot topic; pub giant Wetherspoon's announced they're done with plastic straws, spurring other businesses to follow suit.
In Cornwall, the home of UK surfing, Penzance has just become the first town in the UK to receive SAS' 'plastic free' status – awarded after shops in the town made a conscious effort to ditch single-use plastic. And now, 100 more communities are expected to join the initiative.
Here, we check in with James Harvey, campaign manager for SAS to talk Plastic Free Coastlines, the impact it can have and just how much litter is washing ashore in the UK.
Tell us a bit about Plastic Free Coastlines, what does it aim to do, why was it launched and where is it targeting?
Plastic is the new sewage and Plastic Free Coastlines is our campaign to tackle the problem. You could say that it’s the vision of what we want to achieve.
Plastic Free Coastlines launched in 2017 as a call to action for people to fight plastic pollution locally, nationally and globally. Community action has become a central feature of the campaign.
Plastic Free Communities is a national initiative that unites and empowers individuals, businesses, local government and community groups to reduce their collective plastic footprint.
Hundreds of communities are already working towards ‘Plastic Free’ status through the programme
It is the only holistic, step-by-step framework currently available to galvanise community action to reduce local over-reliance and use of avoidable single-use plastics, with the aim of stopping plastic pollution.
Hundreds of communities are already working towards ‘Plastic Free’ status through the programme. The initial aim was to establish 125 Plastic Free Communities by 2020. Eight months on and we already have 208 communities signed up – eight of which have already reached Plastic Free status and more on the way. The combined population of these 208 communities is over 19 million people.
The great thing about Plastic Free Communities is that the work can involve everyone – schools, local business, local authorities, community groups and more. Any community can get involved. What’s really important is it doesn’t matter where you live. Communities don’t need to be coastal to work on this project, or even based in the UK – plastic pollution can originate anywhere.
What can be done by consumers and businesses to reduce the plastic footprint?
Plastic pollution is, fundamentally, a problem caused by our modern lifestyle.
The majority of the plastic pollution our 40,000 beach clean volunteers find is avoidable, single-use plastic: straws, stirrers, plastic bottles, plastic bags, disposable lighters, plastic cotton bud sticks and condiment sachets. They all have an upstream solution to prevent their presence on our beaches and including consumers and businesses in the fight is really important.
Consumers can make a big difference by making simple changes to their shopping habits and lifestyle choices. Refusing to buy single-use plastic items and challenging businesses to reduce their usage will make a huge impact.
Businesses have a really important role to play here. Removing the option to purchase and use single-use plastics is the easiest way for consumers to avoid them. By making suitable, sustainable alternatives readily available to customers, they will help to change behaviour and reduce the amount of throwaway plastic in our society.
Roughly, how much plastic is washing ashore on UK beaches?
It’s hard to put an exact figure on it. The SAS 2017 Big Spring Beach Clean saw volunteers remove over 55 tonnes of marine plastic pollution and litter from 475 beaches across the UK. The total amount collected for the whole of 2017 was just under 100 tonnes. About 12 million tonnes of plastic litter enters the oceans globally every year and it’s on the increase.
There’s been a huge movement for the eradication of plastic recently – wetherspoon’s dropping plastic straws, Penzance becoming the UK’s first plastic free town, what does that mean exactly? That the aim is to have no plastic at all in a town? How feasible is that given the current state of mind?
When a community achieves Plastic Free status with SAS, it means they have not only committed to eliminate specific items of avoidable, single-use plastic but put the decision-making engine in place to incrementally decouple their town from throwaway plastics.
It wouldn’t be feasible to eliminate all plastics from towns and cities, but it is possible to eradicate the use of avoidable, single-use plastics, which make up the majority of plastic pollution currently strangling our shores and marine life.
About 12 million tonnes of plastic litter enters the oceans globally every year and it’s on the increase
Plastic pollution isn’t just a litter issue, it’s a system-wide issue. We cannot just pick our way out of the plastic pollution problem. We need more than beach cleans. Building upstream solutions to stop plastic pollution at source is critical.
Empowering and connecting communities to combat society’s over-reliance on avoidable plastics is a great way to do this.
As surfers, what can we do to drive the message home?
Plastic pollution is an expected part of the surfing experience these days. Surfers are ideally placed to raise awareness of the issue because they know from sometimes painful experience the problems plastic causes in the marine environment.
There are lots of ways to help get the message out there. Social media is a great way to spread the reach of our plastic free campaigns. You can also make your voice heard by signing and sharing our Message In a Bottle petition or calling on your MP to rid Parliament of single-use plastics by getting involved in our Plastic Free Parliament campaign.
If you want to get involved in your local community, consider becoming an SAS Regional Rep or Community Leader in our Plastic Free Coastlines campaign. Attending a beach clean and encouraging others to join in is also a great way to raise awareness of the plastic pollution problem.
And each year, SAS organises the spring beach clean – how can people get involved?
This year’s Big Spring Beach clean is happening on 7-15 April. There’s loads of ways you can get involved. Head over to our Beach Cleans page (go HERE) where you can find out when and where your nearest clean is taking place. Just turn up at the designated time and place to join others from your community in a big old clean up.
Or you might want to think about leading your own clean, which is really straightforward and we’ll be with you every step of the way.