Written by Tom Velterop |
Do you feel positive about the future? I asked Chris Hines MBE, veteran activist and surfer as we sat at Blue Bar by Porthtowan beach, formerly nicknamed ‘Porthtampon’ for all the sanitary waste that used to litter its sand.
“Yeah,” he answered with a firm nod, “The challenges are huge, but they’ve always been huge… we can make a difference.” A moment later he added, “We can and we have to.”
Chris was born in Plymouth, on the edge of Dartmoor, in 1962 – the beginning of the decade of love. While the hippies were growing their hair out, smoking weed and jamming to the Beatles, young Chris was falling in love with nature.
“The natural world was always quite prominent,” he said of his childhood, his eyes on the breaking waves behind me. “I could play in it. I don’t think that’s there enough for kids these days. I was lucky… it gave me a bond to nature.”
Chris is enamoured by surfing. It has shaped his life: “I had my first wooden belly board when I was five, and by twelve I had saved up and bought my first surfboard. It was a dog but I loved it.”
Surfing isn’t only his hobby and passion, it’s the framework he has used to push his political agenda – one of
Imagine dirty nappies in the curl of a breaking wave. Baby-wipe-bergs taking out body boarders.
They were sick of surfing in shit, sick of wading through shoals of tampons, panty liners and condoms, sick of being sick, “everything coming out of both ends in full flush” for days after a morning surf. They formed a group and Andrew Kingsley-Tubbs came up with the name: Surfers Against Sewage (SAS). They held a public meeting a couple of weeks later in St Agnes.
“You couldn’t get through the doors so many people turned up,” said Chris of that first meeting. They were all there for one reason: they “had decided to do something about it.”
Imagine dirty nappies in the curl of a breaking wave. Baby-wipe-bergs taking out body boarders. “Tumble-tampons” rolling past the village deli, blown along by a stiff ocean breeze.
“Everybody was being affected. It was always broader than just surfers.” But, as clothing and shoe companies were using surfing to sell products, the surfers used their hobby to sell a campaign for cleaner seas.
“All sewage to be treated before discharge; sewage to be treated as a resource, not a waste; complete cessation of toxic discharges to sea; greatest environmental benefit per pound of customer money spent.” That was how Chris recalled their mission statement. He looked proud.
The first thing Surfers Against Sewage had to do was identify the problem. That was easy. According to Chris, millions of gallons of crude was being discharged around British coastlines every day. Sewage, pumped to long sea outfalls, wasn’t being treated properly and was washing back onto the beaches.
Much harder was engineering a solution. All the water industry wanted to do was build long sea outfalls and push the waste out where we couldn’t see it after only the most basic treatment – rather like a kid sweeping everything under the bed instead of tidying. But SAS found out that on the Isle of Jersey they hadn’t built any long sea outfalls at all.
Instead, they were doing primary and secondary treatment and UV disinfection of all their sewage. They were also claiming that the UV disinfection was nine million pounds cheaper than building a long sea outfall and that the bacterial count in their local outfall pipe was twenty times cleaner than our government pass standard.
“I wrote down some evidence to the Houses of Parliament select committee,” said Chris. “I said I’d feel fifty times safer sticking my head up Jersey’s outfall pipe than I would bathing on a government passed beach. So, I went and duck dived their outfall pipe. Looked, tasted and smelled cleaner than this place!” He gestured to the beach behind me, much cleaner now than it was back then.
He is known for chasing politicians around with a six-foot inflatable turd.
Chris has always been radical, bold, with what he describes as a “healthy disrespect for authority”. He is known for chasing politicians around with a six-foot inflatable turd. Since those early years, SAS has transformed from ‘Britain’s coolest pressure group’ into a marine conservation charity, and Chris is no longer running around the Houses of Parliament upsetting politicians.
But the group’s pressure was getting noticed: Welsh Water opened up a dialogue with SAS and, in 1994, adopted a full sewage treatment policy, abandoning long sea outfalls and doing everything SAS wanted. They even invited the surfers to cut the ribbon on their first UV treatment works.
“Good businesses, doing the right thing, will help lead the way out of some of our bigger environmental crises,” said Chris. And after Welsh Water, others started to follow suit.
The 1997 Labour landslide put Tony Blair in power, and put many Labour MPs in coastal constituencies. They knew that they had to deliver something, and the environment was a perfect box to tick.
“In September (1997) I got 24 hours notice to be special advisor to Michael Meacher (may he rest in peace),” Chris recalled fondly. “I came out of that meeting punching air, and six weeks later the government ruled all sewage should be treated at a secondary level, with tertiary treatment, UV or micro filtration.”
It was the first step towards a victory for Chris. The next came soon after it was announced £5.5 billion was to be spent on cleaning up UK coastlines. At that point, after giving it a couple years just to make everything was going ahead as promised, Chris felt that he had done what he needed to with SAS and peeled away. Predictably, he took a year off and went surfing.
What was the whole process like, as someone with no lobbying experience or real political knowledge? I asked.
“It was scary, and hard. There were massive learning curves. But it was amazing,” Chris said with a grin. “It was a team effort. We were a good, strong community group. It was a blast.”
Chris was then invited to work with Cornwall’s own Eden Project, as their first Sustainability Director, from 2001 for five and a half years. He came up with the ‘Waste Neutral’ concept and introduced triple bottom line thinking – the balance between the environmental, social and financial concerns of a business.
“That’s where I learnt more about sustainability and the broader issues around that.”
“I fear the media will get bored of ocean plastics and move on to something else…”
Throughout almost all of our interview Chris has been overwhelmingly positive. But even his surfers chill can melt sometimes.
“It’s frustrating how long it’s taken to make these changes,” he said when recalling his campaigning career. “There’s some great stuff and great campaigns happening,” he added, “but there’s a lot of work to do.” Cornwall, for example, is steadily going plastic free. Ocean plastics are a hot topic, supported by public interest and media coverage. But people are fickle. “I fear the media will get bored of ocean plastics and move on to something else,” Chris said with a shake of his head.
There are many people and organisations doing fantastic work – Sir David Attenborough and George Monbiot were two mentioned by Chris. But is the government doing enough? I wondered. And what do you think about Michael Gove as Environment Secretary? I asked.
“He’s not the worst but he’s not the best,” was the surprisingly diplomatic answer.
What’s your opinion of the 25 Year Environment Plan the government announced in January 2018?
“Absolutely ridiculous. A joke,” was the less diplomatic answer. I was fully inclined to agree. It should be obvious that we, the people and the government, need to be doing so much more so much faster than what was laid out in the 25 Year Plan.
“Dangerous,” came the simple reply. “The challenges that face us are global. So, anything that makes us as a country and as a species more divided is not good, because the solutions need to be global too.”
“A grain of sand is small and irritating but out comes the odd pearl…”
Without the EU regulations policing the ‘Dirty Man of Europe’ (that’s us), we should all be worried about the environmental corners our government might try and cut. Chris is certainly worried. But he is still doing what he can to help.
His latest project is ‘A Grain of Sand’, and that works to “inspire,
Do you feel positive about the future? I asked Chris Hines, self-styled “Moaning Bloody Environmentalist” (his own creative title after being awarded an MBE in 2008).
“Yeah. The challenges are huge, but they’ve always been huge. The twenty first century needs us all, and it needs us big time. We need to be quick and lean, we need to be good communicators, there needs to be a positivity, a pace and a load of passion. We can make a difference. We can and we have to. We get to live in this world and it’s f**king amazing.”