“Think global, act local”: In conversation with Andrew Coleman, a Surfers Against Sewage rep.
Surfers Against Sewage campaigns for more than its name suggests; plastic pollution, ocean recovery, and the climate emergency accompany sewage pollution as the charity's areas of focus. Originating from the small village of St Agnes on the North coast of Cornwall, the charity was founded in 1990 by a group of local surfers who were dissatisfied with and directly impacted by the high levels of sewage pollution in the water they immersed themselves in.
"It was a single-issue group," says Andrew, the first Surfers Against Sewage representative based outside of Cornwall. The early members were successful in attracting significant public and media attention through their demonstrations, utilizing powerful imagery such as wearing wetsuits, carrying surfboards, and wearing gas masks outside parliament. This garnered press coverage and raised awareness of the charity. Over time, the organization has evolved into a national-scale, multi-cause charity, bolstered by large-scale campaigns like the Million Mile Clean in 2021, which brings together thousands of volunteers across the UK to clean their local areas, as they stated "Now there are more of us, with more corners to fight,".
Andrew, a town planner with specialized knowledge in Environmental Impact Assessment, is an experienced surfer residing in Brighton. He also lectures on the MSc Town Planning course at the University of Brighton. In the 1990s, Andrew regularly surfed in raw sewage and developed a growing interest in various environmental issues, leading him to join Surfers Against Sewage. Since then, he has actively participated in numerous campaigns, bringing about tangible change in Brighton and Hove and beyond. During our conversation, we delved into the details of Surfers Against Sewage's campaigns and explored the necessary solutions to address specific issues affecting waterways and the coast.
Sewage pollution has emerged as a significant environmental concern in the UK, receiving substantial media coverage. In 2022, the Environment Agency reported an average of 825 instances of sewage being released into UK rivers and seas per day . A study conducted by mathematician Peter Hammond, who analyzes sewage discharge data, estimated that just 30 water company treatment works released 11 billion liters of sewage into Britain's waterways last year.
"After extensive campaigning and the implementation of European laws, many of us believed that the sewage pollution problem had been resolved" says Andrew, but that was not the case. In the past two years, the issue resurfaced. During the lockdown period, the popularity of open-water swimming and paddle boarding increased, leading to greater public awareness of the problem. Additionally, water companies provided more clarity on when they were releasing sewage, resulting in more people experiencing illnesses related to polluted water.
Surfers Against Sewage aims to eliminate sewage discharge into bathing waters in the UK by 2030. The charity criticizes the UK sewage system as "woefully inadequate." According to Andrew, many areas still rely on a Victorian sewage system. He emphasizes that sewage treatment works have not received sufficient investment since their upgrade from the 1980s to the 2000s. Furthermore, increased rainfall due to climate change has exacerbated sewage management issues. The UK's combined sewerage system, where rainwater and wastewater are transported through the same pipes, can become overwhelmed during periods of poor management and heavy rainfall. This leads to the overflow of polluted water into waterways through storm outfalls.
The discharge of sewage into sensitive habitats such as estuaries can have detrimental effects on organisms like shellfish and plants like seagrasses. Andrew highlights the high nutrient content of sewage, which can disrupt the balance of these habitats. For humans, spending time in polluted water can lead to various symptoms, including diarrhoea, vomiting, eye infections, and viral complaints. Thankfully, Surfers Against Sewage provides the Safer Seas and Rivers Service app, which offers location-specific alerts about sewage discharges. This enables individuals to make informed decisions about entering the water and provides a platform to submit sickness reports to raise awareness of personal experiences.
The Dirty Money campaign is Surfers Against Sewage's current sewage-focused campaign. It centres around capping the bonuses of water company executives, ensuring compliance with environmental regulations, and advocating for financial transparency within water companies. You can find out more about this campaign here: https://www.sas.org.uk/water-quality/dirty-money-petition/. The charity also advocates for nature-based solutions to sewage pollution. These solutions, often referred to as sustainable drainage systems (SuDS), aim to replicate natural drainage processes. They store water on the surface through features like ponds and facilitate infiltration into the ground through structures like soakaways. These systems allow for the separation of water and sewage, reducing the volume of water flowing through sewage pipes and minimizing overflows into waterways. Andrew emphasizes that SuDS should play a vital role in our water management efforts and provide additional environmental benefits such as habitat creation.
Plastic pollution is another major concern addressed by Surfers Against Sewage. The charity's goal is to end plastic pollution on UK beaches by 2030, as over 12 million tonnes of plastic are dumped into the ocean each year. Andrew suggests adopting a "think global, act local" approach to tackle this issue. Based on his experience of beach cleaning in Brighton and Hove, he notes that the majority of beach litter originates from land. Therefore, addressing this issue requires education, enforcement, and changes in plastic production regulations.
During the lockdown, Andrew and his team created a viral video to highlight the state of Brighton and Hove beach. As a result, the council installed permanent bins along the coast at regular intervals to help manage the problem. Surfers Against Sewage's 2022 Brand Audit, where volunteers collected nearly 11,000 pieces of branded plastic across the UK, revealed that just 12 brands accounted for over 50% of the collected plastic, with Coca-Cola plastics being five times more prevalent than most others in the top 12. As a response, the charity urges these companies to take responsibility for the pollution they contribute to the environment and to positively influence consumer behaviour. Surfers Against Sewage has also played a role in advocating for non-removable caps on fizzy drink bottles, pressuring plastic regulators to reduce the number of bottle caps entering the ocean.
Andrew acknowledges the enormity of the pollution problem and its lasting impact on Earth. While his motivation for campaigning may fluctuate, his commitment to the environment, particularly in his local area, remains unwavering. Witnessing people and industries abusing the sea or natural areas like the South Downs National Park fuels his determination to take action rather than stand idly by. He emphasizes the effectiveness of combining fun events with activism and fundraising as a positive source of motivation.
Ocean recovery is a crucial focus for Surfers Against Sewage. The world's oceans produce 50% of the planet's oxygen, harbour most of its biodiversity, and provide employment for millions of people. Unfortunately, 90% of big fish populations are depleted, and 50% of coral reefs have been destroyed. Factors like ocean warming and acidification have already had severe impacts on marine ecosystems.
Surfers Against Sewage demands high protection status for 30% of the ocean and all UK Marine Protected Areas by 2030. Andrew has actively participated in a campaign to prevent the release of dredged material from Brighton Marina into a nearby Marine Conservation Zone and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) to the east. While this activity is legally allowed under license, it conflicts with the establishment of the adjacent MCZ. Andrew advocates for a more sustainable long-term solution to marine dredging.
SAS supports the inshore trawling ban enacted in Sussex, which aids in kelp bed restoration. Kelp plays a crucial role in carbon sequestration as it grows rapidly, up to two feet per day. It releases biomass into the deep sea, permanently storing carbon. Coastal ecosystems, including kelp forests, store up to 20 times more carbon per acre than land forests.
The climate emergency is an urgent issue highlighted by Surfers Against Sewage. The global average temperature recently reached a record high of 17 degrees . The UK has experienced a marine heatwave, and global surface sea temperatures in April and May set new records since recordings began in 1850. SAS calls for the UK to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030 and promote the adoption of ocean-based solutions . Andrew believes this target is achievable with increased effort. However, he questions whether current politicians are courageous enough to take the necessary radical steps. He points out that the UK lags behind in terms of energy efficiency in homes, with many buildings constructed before 1970 lacking proper insulation. He identifies a lack of urgency and speed of action as key obstacles preventing the UK from addressing the climate emergency effectively. SAS Brighton and Hove actively organize beach cleans in areas accessible by public transport and bike rental to reduce emissions from car use. They also support the local "Help our Kelp" campaign, focusing on restoring kelp forests along the Sussex coastline to enhance carbon sequestration.
Surfers Against Sewage has grown from humble beginnings to become a multifaceted national campaigning organization. Andrew emphasizes that they are not solely surfers and that the charity's scope extends beyond sewage-related issues. The opportunity to engage in diverse activism has driven his commitment to the environment. As long as there is campaigning to be done, Andrew remains dedicated.
To learn more about Surfers Against Sewage and their campaigns, visit their website: