It all seems so daunting: plastic in the ocean, dying coral reefs, exterminated entire species – but don’t click in despair!
Really, everyone can do something to make the ocean cleaner and our environment healthier.
Here are some simple (or mostly simple) lifestyle changes that have a big impact on our environment.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program highlights the most sustainable seafood.
Whenever you eat fish, make sure that choose a sustainable variety that is not endangered.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch” program has online guides detailing which fish are your best bets. You can download all of these directories, divided by region, into a printable pocket guide – so if you’re a seafood lover, is a handy resource to have nearby.
Check out this interactive content on CNN.com
The most consumed seafood in the United States is shrimp, salmon, and tuna. If these are among your favorite choices, some more environmentally responsible options include shrimp from the US or Canada; salmon caught in the American Pacific or Canada; and canned tuna labeled “rod-caught,” “rod-and-line,” or “rod-caught.”
How your fish is caught is important. You need to make sure you don’t eat fish caught in nets, which are known to catch “bycatch” – turtles, seabirds and whales often get caught in these lines and die.
And because whales are great at catching carbon emissions that warm the planet – even better than trees – keeping them in the ocean helps us all.
Mark Rightmire/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register/Getty Images
Garbage piles up along the banks of the San Gabriel River near the Pacific Ocean in Seal Beach, California. Due to the rains, garbage has flowed down the river from kilometers inland.
This is a big one… and one of the worst problems facing the oceans, landfills and even our bodies!
Jennifer Savage from Surfrider Foundation suggests supporting companies that avoid single-use plastics.
If your favorite restaurant still uses plastic, tell guests to ditch the plastic forks and gently suggest to management that they switch to a more sustainable takeout option (like bamboo utensils and paper cups and straws) or—better yet—rather use washable plates and cutlery instead.
“It also saves money. If they spend all that money on single-use plastic, a small investment in a dishwasher and reusable cutlery will save money in the long run.”
He also says that consumers are realizing that they prefer lower usage options.
“People like it, people are much happier. Think how much better it feels to dine with metal utensils and a real plate.”
Like consumers are becoming concerned about things like microplastics making their way into their bodieshe says it’s “unnecessary” for restaurants.
“Plastic has been found in our bodies … people don’t want to eat from plastic plates with plastic utensils.”
The Surfrider Foundation even has one useful online guide, highlighting seafood-friendly restaurants.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Discarded plastic and other waste overflows from a garbage dump in Los Angeles. The Surfrider Foundation reports that less than 7% of plastic in the US is recycled.
It’s important to realize that most plastic isn’t recycled, says Savage. He says the US plastic recycling rate is only about 5 to 6%.
The numbering system on the bottom of plastic items is no guarantee that they will be recycled. Things labeled 1 and 2 — and in rare cases 5 — are your best bets, experts told CNN, depending on what your municipality can handle.
“Things that have a number on them… that’s just a fallacy. These things are easy to sort and put in a landfill,” says Savage. The same goes for the “chasing arrow” symbol you see on the bottom of many plastic containers, he says. Most still cannot be recycled.
Some states, including California, are beginning to crack down on this misleading labeling and do not allow the symbol to appear on non-recyclable plastics.
So, whenever you can: skip the single-use plastics and styrofoam. Support companies that are part of the solution. And talk to your reps about phasing out.
Ivan Kosovan/500px Plus/Getty Images
Beach in Big Sur, California.
Picking up litter on the beach alone won’t solve the problem, but it’s very important, says Savage.
“At that point you will have a cleaner beach. You will have less plastic in the environment. Cleaning it up and leaving it better than you found it makes you feel good.”
And that “feeling good” often leads to activism. “Next thing you know, they’re going to city council meetings and contacting their representatives.”
Another bonus of participating in the beach cleanup? It allows organizations to collect data on the most common items that end up as litter on the beach.
“You don’t see that many single-use plastic bags in California, so you don’t see them [on the beach as often] more. It helps people see what the biggest problems are. Whether it’s plastic bags for chips, cigarette butts or whatever.”
Cosmetic chemist Autumn Blum is an avid diver and shark lover who produces ocean-friendly sunscreens.
Autumn Blum is a cosmetic chemist by day and a shark-obsessed scuba diver on the weekend.
Ingredients to avoid in sunscreens
She spent years formulating skin products for other companies before starting her own mineral sunscreen business. Her inspiration? Seeing a group of divers surrounded by a circle of oily film on the water, formed by the chemical sunscreens they had applied. She was horrified, knowing that the chemicals were deadly to corals and many fish.
“So many things affect our waters. Something we use on our bodies should not be one of them. Period,” says Blum. “It’s a simple part that we can change to have a positive effect.”
Blum says recent bans on chemical sunscreens are already making a difference in places like Hawaii, where reefs are coming back to life. It is also encouraged by efforts to restore coral reefs by planting corals.
There’s still no mutually agreed-upon term to describe what’s “reef-safe,” so you really need to avoid certain ingredients that are known to be harmful, Blum says.
Blum also encourages consumers to make sure they don’t buy products that contain microbeads.
When you wash them off your face or body, these microbeads go down the drain, go straight through your local sewage treatment plant and end up in the ocean. From there the fish can eat them.
People then eat the fish that ate the microbeads…and this is another way to end microplastics in our bodies.
Avoid washing your face with plastic microbeads.
Moisturizer for sharks
Many new moisturizers tout “squalane” as their new miracle ingredient.
“Squalane is considered a biomimetic, which means your body recognizes it,” Blum told CNN.
It is a common ingredient in sunscreens, cosmetics and premium skin care products. “The unfortunate thing about squalane is that it’s often derived from shark liver,” says Blum.
Many species of shark are threatened with extinction and several of these species are considered “critically endangered”.
Plant-based squalanes work just as well as those from shark, Blum says. So when reading your ingredient label, make sure it says “vegan squalane” or “vegetable squalane.” Otherwise, Blum advises, assume it comes from sharks.
Vera Meyer, a scientist at the Berlin Institute of Biotechnology, holds a sponge container. The institute aims to produce clothing, packaging and building materials from fungal cultures.
Now for the good news: materials are being developed that could change all of our packaging, says Blum.
Mycelium made from mushroomsit works similarly to current plastics.
Meanwhile, researchers at Yale discovered a separate fungus with the astonishing ability to break down polyurethane. Blum says it will take a while, but “really cool” technology based on plastic-eating fungi could be in our future.
“It’s not ready for commercial use, but it’s on the horizon,” he says.
So forget “The Last of Us.” Mushrooms can save us all.
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