It's our responsibility to keep the oceans clean and, so far, we suck at it. Most of us don't know we harm the ocean with ordinary things we do every day. Best of all, they're things that are easy to stop doing, or to do better.
What's at Stake
There's still time to save the oceans -- and our sushi menu -- by being a little more careful. The next 10 years is critical to the survival of the seas. Think one person can't make a difference? You're probably right. It will take a lot of concerned, informed people committed to making changes, and big companies need to get on board, too. One person willing to speak out can make an impact. Here's what you can do to make a significant environmental impact on your own, at home or in your personal life.
Put simply, if the oceans die, we die. Oceans cover more than 70 per cent of the earth, and provide 50 per cent to 85 per cent of the oxygen in the air we breathe. More than 97 per cent of the world's water is in the ocean, and about one-sixth of the protein in our diets comes from fish and shellfish. Fresh water is becoming scarce in some areas, like California, and desalinating ocean water is our best long-term solution.
We -- all of us -- need to make some changes, and fast. Here are some small things with the potential to make a big difference.
Don't Buy Products that Contain 'Microbeads'
Microbeads are tiny bits of plastic added to products you use to scrub and exfoliate, like body wash and toothpaste. They're too small for water filtration and processing plants to clean them out of the water, and millions of tiny beads wind up in our rivers, streams and other waterways, which eventually carries them out to the ocean. There, fish and other sea life mistake them for food and eat them, and to boot, the plastic the beads are made of is toxic to the marine environment.
In Australia, cosmetic companies are currently undergoing a voluntarily phase-out of microbeads, and Woolworths and Coles are removing products containing microbeads from their shelves. In the US, President Obama signed a law in 2015 that prohibits the manufacture of rinse-off cosmetic products that have microbeads. The law takes effect in July 2017, and bans the sale of the products starting in January of 2018.
However, many microbead-carrying products will still be on store shelves. That is, unless people stop buying them. If manufacturers can't sell them, they will stop making them much sooner.
Eat Sustainable Fish
Certain types of fish are so popular, they are dying out from overfishing. If you like your fish and want to eat them too, the Australian Marine Conservation Society has a free app, Sustainable Seafood Guide (for iOS and Android), you can download and use at restaurants or at the grocery store. It will help you choose sustainable fish, and includes Greenpeace's canned tuna guide to help you choose sustainable brands.
Don't Wash Your Car at Home
Consider all the stuff that washes off your car, and where it goes. If you wash your car at home, you're washing oil, grease and fluids like antifreeze and transmission fluid into the sewer, where it flows untreated to the waterways. Professional car washes are required to manage waste according to EPA regulations, collecting, cleaning and disposing of any pollutants.
If you must wash your car at home, this list of tips from Care2 is full of ways to keep the process as clean and environmentally friendly as possible. For example, you can choose biodegradable cleaning products, use as little water as possible and park your car on gravel or grass, so the waste goes into the ground instead of the sewer.
Help Clean up the Beach
You love the beach anyway, right? Volunteer to attend cleanup events with an organisation like BeachPatrol, or just pick up rubbish every time you go. Carry a reusable garbage bag and pick up any rubbish you see. It's a quick and simple way to get involved.
Similarly, if you don't live near a beach, don't neglect your local rivers, lakes and waterways. Check with your local council on the web. They likely have programs to get people involved with waterway cleanup, and regular volunteering events where everyone gets together to clean up the shore. And, of course, there's always Clean Up Australia Day. A few hours makes a huge difference.
Reduce, Reuse and Recycle
Don't buy one-use products, like disposable plastic water bottles, if you can avoid it. Lightweight non-recyclable packaging winds up in the sea, is carried by birds, gets blown by the wind, or drifts on waterways or through sewer systems into those waterways. Used unrecyclable and non biodegradable coffee pods alone could circle the earth about 12 times. Reusable cups are available, but not popular.
The sheer volume of floating plastic waste in the ocean is staggering. One collection of garbage floating in the North Pacific Ocean has grown so big that scientists named it The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It's about the size of Texas, and it's 90 per cent plastic. To visualise the size and scope of the ocean trash problem, check out this interactive world map.
In Australia, 20,700 tonnes of plastic bags are thrown into landfill annually. This doesn't include any other types of plastic, such as bottles and packaging. Americans alone throw away 10.5 million tonnes of plastic garbage per year, and recycle less than two per cent of it. Even worse, plastic doesn't just degrade. Nearly every piece of plastic ever made still exists.
There's another, more selfish bonus to cutting down on disposable packaging and products. You'll save money when you buy in bulk and pack your snacks in a reusable lunch bag or trendy bento box, and travel mugs that keep your drinks hot or cold beat Styrofoam cups by a mile.
You already know smoking is bad for you and the people around you, but do you know how bad cigarettes are for the environment? When cigarette butts get wet, chemicals poisonous to sea life, like arsenic, acetone, ammonia, benzene, cadmium, formaldehyde, lead and toluene leach out into the surrounding water. Birds and fish eat them, and you can guess where all of those waste chemicals end up. Plus, the filters contain plastic. They may be small, but the 4.5 trillion cigarettes people smoke every single day around the globe can add up to 725 million kg of toxic garbage per year, and a lot of it winds up in the ocean.
It's not easy to quit smoking, but it is so worth it, not only for yourself and the people closest to you, but also for the environment at large. If the environment isn't enough reason, consider how much money you'll save, and how much you'll save in insurance, too. If you're looking for a plan to quit, check out Quitline, and if you're looking to support someone who's trying to quit, we have some tips for you here.
Re-Paint Your Boat
You may not have a boat, but just in case you do (or know someone who does), this is a small change you can make with a big impact. The anti-fouling paint used on the bottom of boats is usually toxic... on purpose. It's formulated to prevent marine life, like barnacles and plants, from sticking to it.
Most hull paints rely on copper to keep boat bottoms clean. In the US, the EPA discovered that copper levels in harbours and marinas are elevated far above acceptable standards, and there have been similar findings in Australia as well. The EPA recommends that you find a paint that's non-toxic instead.
Learn and Advocate
One World One Ocean is an advocacy group and team of filmmakers dedicated to raising awareness about the issues that face our oceans. They produce beautiful IMAX® films that draw you in and teach you about the environmental issues that might otherwise go unreported. Check with your local museum, IMAX Theatres, aquariums and science centres to find a movie, and take your friends. Change begins with education.
The goal of One World One Ocean is to spread awareness, and that's something anyone can do. To boot, by spreading awareness of the project and sharing their videos, you help inform other people. Tell your friends, and they will tell their friends, and pretty soon we're all in it together.
Drop a Few Bucks on a Good Cause
While individual people like you and I can certainly make a difference, there are larger threats to the oceans and environment in general from overfishing, commercial waste, illegal and international dumping and international sailing companies that use the oceans as infinite wastebaskets and toilets.
Here's a list of organisations committed to changing that, where you can donate, find ways to volunteer and learn more:
- Ocean Conservacy
- Clean Ocean Action
- Coral Reef Alliance
- Clean Water Fund
- Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences: BIOS
- Australian Marine Conservation Society
- The Ocean Foundation
The oceans face challenges on every front. Commercial farming creating oxygen-depleted "dead zones" through overuse of fertiliser, commercial vessels using the ocean as their personal dumping ground, global warming creating more CO2 than ocean plants can process, oil spills threatening whole ecosystems, overfishing and the temperature of the ocean disrupting migratory patterns and underwater ecology all contribute to the declining health of our most important resource.
For something that gives us so much, the least we can do is make better choices. No one can save the oceans alone, but every one of us can do our part, and help spread the word.