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Hugo Tagholm on Microplastics

There’s a rising tide choking our oceans, and Surfers Against Sewage CEO Hugo Tagholm is committed to stopping it. The fight has wrenched him from his beloved breaks and dumped him on red-eye trains, taking the issue to the nation’s boardrooms, political chambers, and even the royal wedding – switching millions on to this vital issue. It’s been a ride. And now he wants you on board too. 

These days he may be a seasoned surfer and ocean swimmer, but Hugo Tagholm had an altogether stranger introduction to the wonders of the water. “My dad used to take me and my two brothers mudlarking on the banks of the Thames, near Tower Bridge,” he says of his London childhood. “We’d go looking for old coins, and other old stuff that the dockers would've chucked into the river.”

This was around 30 years ago, when it was still possible to find pleasure in the things people threw away. Now, you’d be mad to want to look. “The Thames is now choking with plastic,” Hugo says. “Bottles, bags, cable ties, and all sorts of sanitary waste.” And, of course, the problem extends far beyond the Thames: every day, around 8 million pieces of plastic pollution find their way into our oceans. The tide hasn’t shown any signs of turning. Until now.

For the past 10 years, Hugo has been chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), the marine conservation charity on a mission to break humanity’s plastic habit. Hugo describes the problem as “one of the huge global environmental issues of our time”.

It’s no exaggeration. A pilot whale found dead in southern Thailand hit the headlines recently because it had eaten more than 80 plastic bags. But that’s just one visible example of a problem that has reached every corner of our planet. A typical plastic bottle, for example, can last for 450 years in the marine environment, slowly fragmenting into microscopic particles that forever circle our oceans and can prove deadly for fish, dolphins, seabirds and seals. According to SAS, there may now be as many as 5.25 trillion macro and microplastic pieces floating in the open ocean.

A typical plastic bottle can last for 450 years in the marine environment, slowly fragmenting into microscopic particles that forever circle our oceans and can prove deadly for fish, dolphins, seabirds and seals.

United we stand…

Hugo’s lifestyle makes him painfully aware of the problem. His morning commute takes him past his favourite break – mid-tide Droskyn Point on Cornwall’s north coast – on his way to the SAS HQ at Wheal Kitty, St Agnes (opposite Finisterre’s workshop). He’s spent years surfing local spots with our founder Tom Kay, and between sets the old friends will discuss the challenges of running international operations from this far-flung outpost, while seeing the plastic problem with their own eyes.

“Any piece of plastic can degrade and be ground down into smaller and smaller pieces, particularly with the force of the ocean,” Hugo says. “So we find these multicoloured tide lines, not just of bottles and bags and fishing crates and nets, but of all the pre-manufacturing nurdles used to create every plastic product. It started as this miracle material that would revolutionise our lives because it was cheap and available and abundant. But that same quality has made plastic a miracle pollutant as well.”

Hugo describes the relationship with Finisterre as a “symbiotic pairing”, with our new Microplastics collection designed to complement the SAS mission and shed further light on the threat.

“As a charity we can activate people to make a difference,” he says, “while as a business, Finisterre can find innovative and impactful ways of shedding fewer plastic fibres, like launching the world’s only wetsuit-to-wetsuit recycling programme. Here’s this great brand showing environmental leadership, and a pioneering environmental charity, both motivated to create the change we want to see."

Ditching the plastic

That change is not going to be easy. Every industry, every shop and supermarket, and every community needs to get on board, reconsidering every possible use of plastic in the world. That will require massive, complex legislative change. So it’s no longer just the lure of one of Droskyn’s long lefts that has Hugo leaping out of bed in the morning. It’s campaigning – which happens to require similar levels of commitment and sacrifice as surfing. “I’m on trains around the country at 5am, or getting sleeper trains through the night,” he says. “Either way, I’m missing out on waves and time in the water in order to go and do what I need to do.”

Right now that involves promoting SAS’s Plastic Free Communities initiative. Modelled on the Fairtrade movement, this is a five-step accreditation programme designed to help people cut out avoidable plastics. Having launched in 2017, it already has over 350 communities working towards gaining plastic-free status. And it taps into a key facet of the plastic problem: while Hugo is busy talking to governments about legislation, the public really don’t have to wait to be told what to do. Anyone can do something to help, any time.

“Every piece we pick up off the beach is a victory in the war against plastic, but every piece we say no to in our day-to-day life is a victory of another kind,” says Hugo. “Refilling a coffee cup, saying no to a plastic bag, avoiding straws. And it's a collaborative effort. It’s every business, every government, every individual, every community that needs to take action to change the plastic economy that we live within.”

“Every piece we pick up off the beach is a victory in the war against plastic, but every piece we say no to in our day-to-day life is a victory of another kind.”

Galvanising billions 

The message is really getting out there. On a sunny Saturday in May Hugo found himself at Windsor Castle, as a guest at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle – an experience he describes as “surreal, awesome and a massive, massive honour”. The couple had chosen SAS as one of seven global charities with which to share the spotlight. Suddenly the plastic problem was reaching an audience of billions. “It's brought a whole new audience to what we're doing,” says Hugo. “People in towns, cities and villages around the world were suddenly saying they like what SAS does – the energy, the passion, the expertise, the impact – and how they want to be part of that.”

The point is that plastic doesn’t just affect beaches. While those on the coast can join SAS at a beach clean, anyone in the countryside or the centre of a city can get on board the Plastic Free Communities campaign, running their own plastic audit to see how they can make gains in their life – whether that’s swapping a plastic toothbrush for one made of bamboo, or carrying a reusable coffee cup and refusing to use disposables. But it doesn’t end there.  

“Those are important steps on a longer, more rewarding journey,” says Hugo. “With your plastic-free community, you could get an industrial composter to deal with compostable waste, or drive the wholesale eradication of plastic items from your community. There's so much more you can do with that collective influence.”

Plastic’s real miracle

Hugo describes plastic as the all-pervasive symptom of a society and economy going wrong. It's the linear economy failing. It's the way we consume failing. It's the use of resources failing. As part of his campaigning work, he recently found himself giving evidence on plastic pollution to the London Assembly Environment Committee at City Hall, on the bank of the Thames. He couldn’t help but notice he was only 100 yards from where he’d spent long afternoons mudlarking with his brothers and dad 30 years before. And it was the power of plastic that had brought him back there.

“We've never seen a pollutant that has so united individuals with communities, with businesses, international agencies and government like this,” he says. “And it’s the ocean and beach environment that has brought it to people's attention. This is an environment everyone cherishes, and plastic is the issue that’s telling us we have to change.”

SAS has 150 regional reps representing communities around the UK, and 70,000 volunteers. Join them:
Read more about microplastics here 

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