Sewage pollution in the UK: Everything you need to know

We recently launched the Clean Seas collection in collaboration with the Marine Conservation Society. The collection features prints inspired by the need to keep our oceans safe and free from pollution.

We spoke to Emily Cooper, who works on policy for water quality at MCS. We asked Emily about the state of water quality, why it's a problem that affects us all, and what communities can do to take action.  

What’s the scale of UK sewage pollution?

“In 2022, sewage was discharged into rivers and seas for 2.4 million hours.”

Ilfracombe, Devon, often suffers from sewage pollution

“Quite simply, sewage pollution in the UK is a massive problem. In 2022 across England, Scotland and Wales, sewage was discharged into rivers and seas for 2.4 million hours. One of the things we’re battling against, is we don’t even know the full scale of the problem. That 2.4 million figure accounts for all of the monitored overflows. Scotland only monitors 3.4% of overflows. The truth is, we don’t know how great the scale of pollution is.” 

What’s the impact of sewage discharges on marine life?

“Every time there’s sewage pollution, it’s causing irreversible pollution. You can’t take it back.”

“When sewage is discharged, it’s this soup of harmful chemicals, microplastics, bacteria and viruses. One of the most worrying things is that sewage often contains something called “forever chemicals”. When they’re released into the environment, they don't get broken down and we can’t remove them. They are there forever. 

There’s this west coast community of orcas in Scotland, and it’s believed that they’re going to be wiped out, and they won’t exist anymore because of “forever chemicals” that impact the fertility of marine life. They did a necropsy on a dead whale that washed up, and saw its levels of PCBs, the forever chemical, were a hundred times higher than the accepted level of PCBs for toxicity in marine mammals. PCBs were banned from production in the 1980s, yet we're still seeing this huge level accumulating in marine mammals. 

It’s not one of those things you can turn a blind eye to. Some people think that because the ocean is so vast a bit of sewage pollution will just get diluted. Because of those “forever chemicals”, that’s not the case. There’s no amount of dilution that can get rid of the harm that will occur as a result of those chemicals. Every time there’s sewage pollution, it’s causing irreversible pollution. You can’t take it back. 

Of course, another aspect is the sewage-related debris, that’s tampons, condoms, everything that gets flushed down the toilet that shouldn’t be, and ends up on our beaches.”

Why isn’t the government taking action?

“Our sewage free campaign is aiming to stop sewage pollution at source. In England, we took the government to court with the goal of forcing them to act more strongly - we’re awaiting the final decision on that. As a result of us being in court, the government has already consulted on expanding their work on sewage pollution to cover coastal overflows, which it originally didn't. We’re trying to compel the government to act more strongly.”

Is this a problem that only affects people by the coast?

“We all rely on healthy oceans whether we realise it or not.”  

“We all depend on healthy oceans. Even if you don't live by the coast, the ocean impacts our daily life in a number of ways. Like fish that we eat and is a major source of protein around the world. It helps regulate our climate. It can only do that if it’s healthy. 

Even if you don't live by the coast you might have a local river. The same legislation that should protect the ocean from pollution should also protect rivers. So it’s all part of the same conversation. 

Everyone likes going to the beach, and even if you’re not swimming, you don’t want to be walking among sewage debris

We all rely on healthy oceans whether we realise it or not.”   

Can communities and individuals really make a difference?

“People power is incredible important - it’s like all these snowflakes coming together to form an avalanche.”

“Communities can make a huge difference. Because this is such a systemic problem on a massive scale, there’s a feeling that there’s not a lot individuals can do. That’s not true, whether it’s signing petitions, doing beach cleans, or writing to their MPs or sharing the message. The conversation around sewage pollution has gained so much traction in the last 5 years. Without the public standing behind us, us shouting into the void about sewage pollution doesn’t mean much. But when there are people on the ground, taking part in beach cleans, writing to MPs who then talk in parliament about it, it adds up - it’s like all these snowflakes coming together to form an avalanche. 

I’ve seen coastal communities getting their local river designated as bathing water to at least monitor the water quality there, if not improve it. People power is incredibly important. Without people talking about sewage pollution, and refusing to stop shouting about it, we definitely wouldn't be in the position we are in today, which is looking a lot brighter than it did in the past.”

How can we keep the conversation going?

“We want people to be talking about the ocean and being aware of the problems facing it, because people are the ones with all the power.”

“With the Clean Seas collection, every design raises awareness of the ocean. We want people to be talking about the ocean and being aware of the problems facing it, because people are the ones with all the power. Without people talking about these issues, nothing happens. Having these issues represented on clothing spreads the message in a way that is sustainable and looks great. It keeps the conservation going and reaches more people. Our ideologies align with Rapanui, and tackling problems of waste is all about stopping it at the source, so with Rapanui’s use of organic cotton and a circular model is exactly what we want to get behind.”

Explore the Clean Seas collection, with a portion of every item sold going to MCS to support their work in protecting the oceans from sewage pollution.

 

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