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.