The quest to turn back the beach litter tide | Profile

If you were at Packaging Innovations in February, you may have seen environmental campaign group Surfers Against Sewage. Liz Gyekye spoke to Dom Ferris of SAS to find out what the group wants from packaging

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Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) campaign manager Dom Ferris caused a stir when he turned up at the NEC easyFairs packaging event in February in a wetsuit and carrying more than 800 plastic bottles found on one UK beach with him to highlight the deepening marine litter crisis.

Ferris, a surfer himself, is a man on a mission: to rid beaches of the almost 2000 marine litter items that, according to the Marine Conservation Society, are found on every kilometre of beach in the UK.

Plastic packaging items such as bottles, drink caps and product wrappers are among the most prevalent items (see chart below).

SAS was founded in 1990 by a group of surfers who were literally sick of getting sick, through repeated ear, nose, throat and gastric infections caused by the filth they came across in the sea. Since the campaign started, water quality has significantly improved in many areas.

Beach litter has always been a key issue; at the time SAS launched, most of the blame was targeted at people directly littering beaches, failing to put litter in bins and wrongly flushing plastic sanitary items down the toilet.

Packaging News caught up with Ferris to see how the campaign has developed – and what Surfers Against Sewage want from the packaging industry.

Why did you join the SAS?

I surf – we all do. It’s an important part of the SAS ethos as we have a personal relationship with the environment we are protecting. I have always been passionate about the outdoors, about the UK’s wild places. Before joining SAS I was an outdoor pursuits instructor and have always included messages on how important it is to protect the environment that gives us so much pleasure.

What are you asking the packaging industry to do?

We are asking them to implement four simple steps. This includes more sophisticated labelling. A lot of money is put into packaging to ensure that it sells the product. But there is a lack of effort at the end of the chain. We are also asking them to take the initiative and begin using packaging to ensure products can be broken down quickly and naturally without putting wildlife at risk. In addition to that, we are asking them to promote recycling and reuse and to support community beach litter initiatives or anti-litter projects.

What types of packaging would you like to see more of?

You had the recent announcement by Nestlé that they will be using 100% recyclable packaging across its entire Easter egg range. On this single action, you have to say well done. More companies should be actively implementing new types of packaging like this. There is too much PET plastic; this is what we mean by harmful packaging. PET plastics take a long time to break down and are harmful to marine life.

Why should manufacturers take the blame on behalf of the littering public?

We are not interested in playing a blame game. We are more interested in making sure we stop marine litter because it is on the increase. Everyone has a part to play, from the consumer to the packaging company to the council. Everyone has to do more. So often you start blaming people and then their ears close. We are asking for companies’ help and when they can, when making decisions, they should think about themselves or their children on the beach or in the sea. We are not going to take sides; we are looking for active sustainable solutions.

What about the behaviour of people who litter? Can they change?

It is not just consumers. We do realise that consumers who drop litter have the primary responsibility for dropping the litter. However, the companies whose packaging is on the beach have identifiable properties. Companies like Coca-Cola, for instance, have bottles that live on the beach – that gives them a bad name.

Has your campaign had any impact on brands at all? Our Return To Offender campaign challenges companies whose litter is found on UK beaches to step up the anti-littering message on their products, among other things. We ask people to visit our website and send a ready-made letter to the producer of the litter they find on the beach. We have sent 320 items back to Coca- Cola and parts of their sustainability policies have been influenced by our campaign.

Which brands have you been working with recently on your campaign?

We are working with Haribo on our Return to Offender campaign. We sent them a letter after identifying litter on beaches. Haribo told us that they are in the process of improving the anti-litter messages on their packaging and website and will continue working with us and other environmental organisations, to help make a difference in tackling the problem of litter. Working together we have got them to make the anti-litter man that features on most of their packs more noticeable to their target group.

What’s the next step for in your campaign against marine litter?

We are asking everyone to take the problem of marine litter seriously. We are not appropriating blame. We have plans to get bigger and better each year. From 2006, we have picked up 2,000 items of litter and returned them to the offender. Identifiable pieces of packaging such as Walkers packets have been taken back to the producer. Sometimes we have got negative responses from the people we send the letter to. But the negative responses do not deter us from our aims.

What would be your vision of a UK beach in 50 years time?

We hope to see the line on the marine litter chart go downwards instead of up and to see our beaches clean. Most of all, we would like to see no plastic on them and no litter.



One comment

  1. Congratulations to these guys for making this volunteer effort. It is a shame people have to volunteer their valuable time to clean up a mess made by irresponsible manufacturers and careless litterers. I belong to a similar group in Australia who meet once a month to clean up one of the beaches in our 3207 post code. There are other groups 3206 and 3184 further down the beach doing the same with similar web addresses. We also work with the local council who has a tractor pulled beach sweep that picks up most of the litter off the beaches once or twice a week as the plastic pollution is so bad on these beaches. The council has implemented no butts (cigarette) and glass on the beach. But it is not enforced so gets ignored. And the tractor can’t go everywhere. We deal with state government too on a limited basis advocating for a bottle deposit scheme to be implemented, but it seems companies like Coca Cole have deep pockets to keep any such laws from being implemented. So this to date has proved quite fruitless to get any changes implemented, but it does force the discussion at this higher political level and hopefully one day the politicians will take a walk along a beach and see the mess their succumbing to lobbying actions by big corporates is making and pass one of these laws.
    We need to get the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) more in to the public discussion to put responsible life cycle considerations into packaging design. Currently manufacturing designs are only done for the supply side considerations, nothing on the disposal side. Plastic packaging manufacturers have a higher amount of responsibility to this plastic waste problem as compared to the litters. It is about ‘manufactured demand’ that they create. If a consumer if could not get a individual snack serve in a plastic wrapper, only a regular pack of biscuits, they would still litter the packet wrapper possibly, but we would not have all these little individual plastic snack serve wrappers all over the place. The manufactures made a demand for this type of product. Coffey to go with the plastic lids is another example. We have on and off anti littering campaigns and most people are appalled at people who litter. But where is the same pressure for manufacturers. There is none. Essentially manufacturers have been given free license to make whatever packing they want to suit their performance and cost demands. There is little attention paid to what happens to the item after it has finished its purpose. There is a lot that could be done to reduce plastic packaging waste. For example;
    1) Why are there so many different types of plastic used for essentially the same task?
    Why not say if you want to make a meat tray make it from HDPE, no other material. HDPE has highly recyclable where as PP is not so, or Styrofoam etc.
    2) Make the manufacturer put the recycle symbol and number on the package. Some do not currently.
    3) Impose a non biodegradable plastics tax (like Germany) to encourage companies to use other materials like going back to cardboard. Cardboard is very biodegradable and is still very suitable for the packaging of many items. Just because plastic is cheap to make and is clear to consumers can see the nice product inside does not mean it is the cheapest product when its disposal costs are included. If we had EPR and faced some of the disposal costs, then companies would consider twice is plastic the best product to use for packaging this product.
    4) Limit the size of the serve in the packaging. Now says you can get individual snack size plastic pockets, (I piece of cheese and one cracker). Consequently you see these littered on the ground all over now. Drink companies re producing 250 ml Pet bottles now. Water bottled could be limited to 1.5 litre as the minimum size. That would eliminate a lot of PET bottle litter and PET resource wastage. (Less going to landfill).
    5) And more, you don’t have to look to hard at this industry to see simple changes that could be made to have this industry work in harmony with the environment rather than serve their own production only concerns.

    Yes it is a change from how manufacturing has been done in the past, and would cause a very large objection from industry, but that doesn’t mean we should be allowed to continue to keep doing the same non sustainable practices just for their benefits. All our benefits should be included in disposable packaging designs.
    See for more information on this.