Surfers Against Sewage chief executive Hugo Tagholm: 'We need brave legislation'

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:
Surfers Against Sewage chief executive Hugo Tagholm

If you flew an aerial camera over Cornwall’s Perranporth beach, you’d be sure to spot families dressed in matching wetsuits, colossal waves crashing against the cliffs and children asking their parents to take a look at their latest sandcastle masterpiece.

A postcard perfect scene. However, if you zoomed further in, you’d spot a much more concerning detail- plastic. Decorating the sandy beaches of the South West coast is a trail of straws, bottles, wrappers and broken up plastics swept in by the sea.

Plastic pollution has been in the headlines constantly since Blue Planet II last year, with many crediting Sir David Attenborough as the much-needed leader in the fight against marine plastics.

Yet as wonderful as Attenborough is, he cannot take all the credit. Getting plastics on the agenda is thanks to plenty of years of hard work from a whole range of voices including Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of environmental charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS).

Wave power

When I meet Tagholm at the coastal town, he is filming an interview for ITV news alongside the exchequer secretary to the Treasury Robert Jenrick following the announcement of a potential tax on some single-use plastics. It’s a long way away from the SAS of the 1990s, which worked as a single-issue pressure group focussing on the then chronic sewage pollution around the UK’s coastlines.

Since Tagholm took the reins in 2008, the organisation has been catapulted into the public eye thanks to its beach clean-ups, Plastic Free Communities campaign and plenty of government lobbying.

“When I took over, the organisation was about to be wound up and had lost its direction,” says Tagholm. “I came in with charitable expertise, and new ideas and direction and we’re now one of the country’s leading marine conservation charities.”

Now governed by the charity commission, the organisation has a strong supporter base with around 300,000 regular supporters. It has 10,000 paying members and works with trusts and foundations, corporate supporters and the wider community.

“In the last 10 years we’ve helped to create new legislation, mobilised the biggest community of beach clean volunteers and caught the ears and eyes of government and royalty,” Tagholm adds.

The SAS team work tirelessly to organise beach clean ups across the country, run education programmes for schools and lobby government and businesses to do more to tackle the problem of throwaway plastic.

And it’s not just those who live on the coast SAS help to motivate. It has also teamed up with Canary Wharf to become the world’s first Plastic Free Commercial Centre, running campaigns and setting targets for governance, businesses and the community to get to grips with their plastic habits.

It’s work like this which has often lead Tagholm and his team to Number 10, most notably with a 10ft ship made entirely out of plastic litter found on Cornwall’s beaches.

“The boat was a great moment, it’s almost become a classic thing for us to be in our wetsuits in Westminster campaigning. One minute I’m outside with a plastic bottle ship, the next I’ve got a towel around my waist changing into a suit.”

So has Tagholm always had a penchant for parading around Westminster in a wetsuit? “As a kid I was always massively into surfing, sporting and the environment. My room was filled with shells and stuff I found in nature and now I’ve found myself running this charity which is the nexus of everything I love.

“I’ve come back to my true calling and SAS has been an immense privilege to run so far. I’m so proud of where we’ve taken it and the impact we’ve created at every level in society.”

Royal seal of approval

And it’s not just Westminster which has taken note of Tagholm’s efforts. Back in May, SAS was notified it would be one of the main charities personally selected by Prince Harry and his bride-to-be Meghan Markle to receive charitable donations from those who were considering a gift to the couple.

Not only did Tagholm welcome the focus of the world’s media, he also received an invite to the special day. Much to his wife’s dismay, there included no plus one.

“It was a great honour to be there on that beautiful May morning- it was the most perfect day you could imagine. I found myself at the heart of Windsor castle talking about our campaign to protect our beaches as part of what was one of the biggest global events of the year. The fact they chose us for such a big occasion was a direct reflection of the scale of the issue.”

Nor was it the first time the SAS team had brushed sides with royalty. Back in 2015, the Prince of Wales visited nearby Fistral Beach on Oceans Plastics Awareness day, long before the plastic fever had reached the public.

Three years on, Charles attended the SAS’s St Agnes office to meet those who were innovating around plastics and helping to build a more circular economy. In that time, the number of SAS volunteers has increased from 25,000 to 75,000.

Brave legislation

Over the past year, government has committed to a series of aspirational environmental targets from plastic-free aisles to zero avoidable waste by 2050.

It has also launched a series of consultations to create the blueprint for the next stage in resource and waste legislation, a welcomed-sign of changing parliamentary attitudes. But is this enough to combat the dire situation on our coastlines?

Tagholm says: “We need brave legislation like this which could push manufacturers towards more recycled content and eliminate unnecessary plastics. There’s a lot of breakable, poor quality products which are coming into our markets and it’s not just food packaging.

We have to look at how we reinvest in creating value in what we’re making.”

One way to progress the idea of seeing value in waste is a deposit return scheme (DRS), which SAS has heavily campaigned for.

“What’s not to like about a scheme which means we can collect very high grade, good quality recyclate and recycle it into good, high quality products. Studies we’ve conducted with Keep Britain Tidy and Campaign to Protect Rural England counteract this argument that a DRS would cause financial loss for local authorities.

“They [will gain from more residual materials in the recycling system and reduced collections of emptying of bins. If councils are emptying bins more regularly, that means more lorries on the road, so more money being spent on collections.

“There may be some additional costs to business at the outset but most of the DRS is paid by the unclaimed deposits on bottles. It’s proven to be possible and work, it’s a common-sense approach to capture much more high quality recyclate.”

Tagholm is keen to focus that a DRS is simply a part of a solution to improve waste infrastructure in the UK, not dissimilar to the single-use plastic bag levy, which SAS has previously campaigned on, in terms of reducing the UK’s consumption of single-use plastic bags.

“All too often what can distract that development is someone saying we need one solution that’s going to solve everything. It’s not conceivable and it’s not going to work that way.

"We’re in a hot bed of innovation at the moment, and no one is totally clear on what the ultimate solution will be. There has got to be a composite way of tackling this problem.”

From humble surfer to prolific environmental campaigner, Tagholm has witnessed the power pressure groups can have on shifting the plastics conversation. Like many within the industry, he sees open debate as the only way to achieve real progress.

“The UK is a beach-loving country- it’s an island nation with a rich maritime history. We all understand the ocean and its environment, and it’s this juxtaposition of packaging in that environment in the picture postcard scenes that make people really start to think. Whether on a London street or a beach like here, we can take action any day.”

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