Cleaning up our coast

An Interview with Sam Judd, MNZM

Founder of Sustainable Coastlines Sam Judd was awarded an MNZM in this year’s New Year’s Honours, for services to the environment and sustainability education. The North Shore-based surfer and nature lover met up with Heather Barker Vermeer to talk about the mahi behind, and the impact beyond, the medal.

After completing his law and political studies degree, surf fanatic Sam Judd took an overseas trip that would turn the tide of his life. “Twelve years ago, I started Sustainable Coastlines on a surf trip to the Galápagos Islands.” He and his Kiwi mates decided to do something about the litter pollution they’d encountered and set about removing it by hand, collecting 1.6 tonnes in eight days. Next, and with a near-fatal shark attack drama in the intervening time, Sam and his buddies rallied 300 locals to help clean up 7.5 tonnes of litter from the remote island of San Cristóbal. The trio vowed to continue their mission on their return home and Sustainable Coastlines was born.
The following year, 2009, the organisation was officially launched, with a clean-up of Aotea Great Barrier Island involving 700 volunteers collecting a 2.8-tonne litter haul. Later that year, a mission to Tonga resulted in 50 tonnes of rubbish being cleared from the coast following a three-month education programme and subsequent clean-up drive.
By 2010, the ‘Love Your Coast’ grass roots educational programme and related clean-up events had swept Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and the West Coast, with 68,000 litres of litter removed from the country’s coastline. The wave of support for, and the environmental impact of, the work grew and grew. Coastal clean ups took place on the North Shore stretching from Whangaparaoa down to Little Shoal Bay, where Sam now lives. By 2013, he had been named Young New Zealander of the Year for his work.
“People protect what they love,” says Sam. “It’s a Jacques Cousteau quote I use a lot. It’s so true. The rubbish we find washed up on Aotea Great Barrier Island, or on Rangitoto, is the same rubbish that is being biffed onto the streets.
“It’s not normal behaviour to see anyone purposefully throwing rubbish into the sea, but we do see people dropping rubbish on the street. We don’t have the same affinity and emotional connection with our concrete jungle around us as we do to the ocean, but in the street is where it starts.” And he knows first-hand – he once posed as an Auckland Council worker to access a drain on Queen St to gauge and remove rubbish, and what he found was ‘absolutely horrific’.
Though the clean-ups were proving hugely positive, in popularity and outcomes, but it didn’t feel enough to Sam. “We were the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. We needed to build a fence at the top. We needed to understand more and to create an intervention.”
Sam and his team set about creating an education programme and arranged for a mass survey involving 17,000 school children, psychologists and behavioural experts to be carried out. “We managed to prove that our educational programme was effective.” When the idea was muted to sell the sell the model for the programme to schools, Sam disagreed, preferring to roll it out for free. “One of our values was that we should be ‘open source’. It’s about building a solution, proving it works and helping other people learn how to do it.”
By creating a programme of education that was proven to work, Sam and his team were able to set in motion a wave of widespread, ongoing impact. And he’s as at home doing the work on the ground as he is overseeing strategy. He’d like to see more people actively, physically involved in practical projects as well as all the environmental rhetoric that has become feature of modern marketing.
“It’s not enough to build an app and try to save the world from a website. You have to work your arse off and get your hands dirty!” And Sam does. As well as all the community clean ups and school projects, he estimates he’s spent over 250 days working with offenders in corrections facilities. This work not only involves picking up litter and auditing rubbish at waste transfer stations, but trying to educate, engage and, ultimately create employment pathways for prisoners.
“I have always blended about 20% of time spent on manual work, with education. By putting an hour of each day into education, I proved that I could double the amount of labour output. We are achieving an educational impact and are also achieving a logistical output increase for the cause, which is real.”
In summer, Sam and his organisation’s focus has been ocean clean ups, with education always being integral. In winter, it’s about planting trees. Six years ago, Sam started a hapū-based charity project to build a nursery at a Waikato prison. This led to the creation of 36 jobs as well as the planting of thousands of trees.
He feels people of all places on the political spectrums need to buy in to the cause of protecting our natural environment. “What I see is that pretty much everyone on the left side of the political spectrum is on board. The challenge is to create interventions that everyone likes. People need to see the benefits are economic as well as environmental, one impacts on the other. We need to work together, combining social impact alongside environmental impact. Without doing that, we will never fix climate change and other issues we have.”
In Sustainable Coastlines, Sam has set up a model that is itself sustainable, so much so that he is now able to shift his own focus to other projects, such as ‘a nationwide project to enable communities to resolve some of the major social, economic and environmental challenges’ in post-COVID Aotearoa New Zealand. He says more will be revealed on this Te Mahere Whakauka project later this year.
As well as this year becoming a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, Sam has received many accolades for this work beyond the 2013 Young New Zealander of the Year, including the Energy Globe World Award in 2018, the Microsoft Partner Cloud for Good Award in 2019 and, last year, Sustainable Coastlines was a winner at the 2020 Sustainable Business Awards. On his latest honour, Sam says, “Initially I just thought it was all a bit of pomp and show. Then I realised my old man, who is sadly no longer with us, would have been pretty proud of me, especially having been a public servant all his life. So I’ll put a suit on and go to Government House to collect my medal and probably have a real good party to celebrate!”
He likes to let his hair down, when he’s not working on preserving nature, by getting out there and enjoying it. “We all know nature’s a great healer, right!” Spearfishing and surfing are his favourite ways to spend time in the ocean. He currently lives in ‘a pretty shabby house on an awesome section’ in the Little Shoal Bay area of Birkenhead. “I love being able to wake up in the morning and stare out over the water. We have some insanely awesome birdlife around too.”
Sam enjoys using the local ferry and is a regular at the Hinemoa Street shops and cafes. As the interview draws to a close, he waves a glass milk bottle that has been sitting on the table. “I’m off across the road to get some more milk,” he explains. “It not only makes sense to use these glass bottles you exchange, but the milk tastes way better than the stuff you get in those crappy plastic bottles anyway!” The environmental wins just keep coming.