Surfers Against Sewage

Hugo Tagholm talks beach cleans, plastic in the age of COVID and how to reduce our plastic footprint

Since 1990, Surfers Against Sewage has been working to protect the oceans, waves, beaches and wildlife around the UK. As their website says: ‘We fight long and hard to protect what we love and we won’t stop until it’s completely clean, safe and protected for everyone, forever.’

We sat down with Hugo Tagholm, Chief Executive of Surfers Against Sewage, to learn more about what they do and how we can make a difference for the planet.

Our Favourite Takeaways

‘Every piece of plastic we pick up at the beach front is a victory for the environment.’ Hugo is incredibly proud of their beach cleans, but acknowledges that we need to deal with the route causes of the problem. It’s great to pick plastic up at the beach – or even refuse it in the first place – but we really need a new system to contain and control plastic in a different way so we don’t have plastic in our oceans, our countryside, our streets. They led the way on the plastic bag ban; the ban on straws, stirrers and cotton bud sticks; and the deposit return system rolling out in Scotland in 2022 and England in 2023.

The danger of plastic in the environment isn’t just the physical pieces that can harm wildlife. A lot of chemicals go into making plastics too and when the chemical load enters the ecosystem it can have long-lasting effects – like the PCBs that were banned in the 1980s but which are still affecting the fertility of Orca whales around the UK. And now with the microplastics entering the food chain at the very bottom, we’re only just starting to explore the health impacts of plastics in our own systems.

The good news is that individuals absolutely can make a difference! Start by looking at the single-use plastics you encounter in your everyday lives and find ways to reduce your plastic footprint. It’s all about the journey and iterative steps. Some days you’ll be able to use almost no plastic and other days you’ll encounter it everywhere. As Hugo says, ‘We are part of a system that is difficult to escape…’

‘That’s why it’s so important we use the voice of plastic-free communities – not just for what they’re doing in terms of their own reductions and successes on reducing plastic – but really as a movement and a campaign, calling for systems change. Where we’re asking both politicians and business leaders to give us alternatives that don’t depend so much on single-use plastics.’

Hugo spoke about the journey we’re on with plastics almost as a gateway to a more sustainable life. If we’re buying prawns that came from a mangrove swamp that’s been destroyed in the harvesting and they’ve been flown over a long distance to get to us – just because they’re in a reusable box may not offset the negatives.

We need to follow our impulses further and think about our dietary choices, the items we’re using, the clothes we buy and how often we wear them. ‘There’s a bigger journey that plastic can take you on in terms of your whole consumption…’ Let this be the start of the journey for you.

While the increase in PPE pollution in the countryside and waterways are a concern, the real dangers are around changes in plastic production as a result of the pandemic. There is now a huge concern around hygiene and people are gravitating toward plastics because of a ‘perceived hygiene benefit’ that isn’t justified.

Big Plastic and Big Oil companies are pushing us all in that direction. And with the delays to the government bans on unnecessary plastic and delays in deposit return systems, that’s where we need to focus our energy.

The big companies want us to focus solely on individual action and people littering because it absolves them of any responsibility and action they need to take to change the entire systems. We need to ask government for plastic reduction targets for big companies and set penalties when they put their profits ahead of protecting the planet.

‘We know that business-as-usual is failing the planet. There is no way those models can deliver any environmental or regenerative benefits at the moment. For us it’s about investing in truly circular systems and reducing unnecessary resource consumption.’

Hugo’s advice for us: ‘Find an organisation you love and give them your support. Look for practical solutions you can participate in. Find an organisation that can amplify your voice to the decision-makers in our world.’

Learn more about the ways you can get involved with Surfers Against Sewage at

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