15 Things You Can Do to Help Keep Oceans Clean

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iStock

Summer is here, and millions of people will take to the most beautiful beaches all around the world for relaxing afternoons of sunbathing and swimming in the ocean. Our beaches and oceans are a natural wonder that should be taken advantage of, after all. But they're also facing a pollution crisis. From untold tons of plastic to carbon emissions and household chemicals getting into our waterways, the dangers facing marine life are mounting.

In honor of World Ocean Day on June 8, it's important to realize that it's not enough just to enjoy our oceans—we also have to keep them clean and actively protect them. And here are 15 ways you can help.

1. EDUCATE YOURSELF.

Pipes in a water treatment plant
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It's hard to clean up the ocean without knowing why and how it gets polluted in the first place. So the first step is to get informed. Go online, turn on a documentary, or grab a book from the library—there are countless ways to learn about the ocean without having to move off the couch.

Learn how your plastic water bottle winds up in the ocean in the first place, or how the oil from your engine can travel through the sewer and into nearby bodies of water. You can even learn about lesser-known forms of pollution—did you know that even noise pollution underwater can kill marine life? The best way to begin your ocean advocacy is to know the hows and whys.

2. CUT DOWN ON PLASTIC.

A collection of discarded plastic bottles
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There are plenty of reasons to cut down on the plastic you use every day, but if you want to do your part for the ocean, it's doubly important. To put it into sobering perspective: It's possible that around 8 million tons of plastic get into our oceans every year, harming plant life, water quality, and marine animals around the globe. To put that into further perspective, around Los Angeles, around 10 tons of plastic fragments find their way into the Pacific every day.

Single-use plastics are among the most wasteful, but they're also the easiest change you can make to your lifestyle. Instead of buying single-use plastic water bottles in bulk, switch to reusable bottles you can fill up again and again. There is also a movement among cities, countries, and certain restaurant chains to get rid of plastic straws, bags, utensils, and other smaller plastic items that can be easily swapped out for something more sustainable. Make that change in your own home, too.

3. HOLD COMPANIES ACCOUNTABLE.

Someone grasping a handful of plastic straws
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It's not just individual consumers who need to watch their plastic consumption—it's local restaurants and global corporations as well. Find out which companies and businesses employ the best practices when it comes to packaging and plastic usage and which ones don't.

If you feel like your local take-out place or café is being excessively wasteful, tell them. (Also, do your part by telling them you don't need any plastic utensils or paper napkins if you're planning to eat at home or the office.) And if your issue is with a larger chain, get in touch with them on social media or write an email. Then you can start digging deeper. Harmful microbeads are banned in the U.S. [PDF] for their impact on oceans (though the ban's not 100 percent in effect yet), but what about in other countries? And are the products you're using actually free of them? Find out, because while you may practice clean ocean habits, the companies you buy from may not.

4. BE AWARE OF CHEMICALS IN YOUR GARDENS AND ON YOUR LAWN.

Woman spraying plants in her garden
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Pesticides, fertilizers, weed killers—three things that are ubiquitous on lawns and gardens around the world, but each can be very harmful for our oceans. Pesticides and weed killers work by using dangerous chemicals, and though your plants and yard may benefit, those chemicals can easily get into our water systems. And if you live close enough to an ocean, they’ll likely end up there.

Fertilizers have an interesting effect on the eco-system. The excess nutrients can be carried by rain and wind to various water systems. Once in rivers, lakes, streams, and oceans, these nutrients can help with the growth of algae at an unnatural rate. When this happens, the algae's natural toxins can not only poison marine life, but the algae itself can use up the oxygen in certain areas of water, making it impossible for anything else to survive. These are called "dead zones," and the roughly 500 of them around the globe cover some 245,000 square kilometers (that's about the size of the UK). Luckily, there are ways to have and maintain a garden while being responsible to the environment.

5. RECOGNIZE THE HARM OF INDIVIDUAL LITTER.

Picking up a bottle on the beach
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Picking up after yourself on the beach should go without saying, but just take a look around the sand the next time you're by the shore—obviously someone didn't get the memo. Stray bottles, cans, bags, and napkins can be ubiquitous along waterways, and even just one piece of litter can pose a problem. This garbage can be picked up by the wind, get stuck around the necks of birds and other animals, and carried back out to sea by the tides.

Keep anyone in your party accountable for their messes, and if you encounter some trash that isn't yours, pick it up anyway and throw it away. That plastic bag or discarded soda can is an immediate threat to any marine life that could get caught in it, so be sure to do your part.

6. VOLUNTEER YOUR TIME TO CLEAN UP.

A group of people cleaning up the beach
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Picking up litter while on a beach vacation is great, but you can also organize your own cleanup in your community if you live near an ocean. First, talk to local politicians and community groups to see if there's an existing ocean cleaning effort in your area. If not, go through those channels to help organize one. This is a great way to call on townspeople in your area—including friends, strangers, and local schools—to help beautify the area and teach positive habits when it comes to maintaining a cleaner ocean.

7. DONATE TO AN OCEAN CHARITY.

A person holding a sea turtle
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Not everyone lives near an ocean to help do the legwork, but a simple donation can go a long way. Research charities in your state or around the country that help clean the ocean and see if they're holding a fundraiser or collecting supplies for a cleanup effort.

In addition to donating to cleanup charities, there are also ways to give money to research efforts, conservation groups, and educational foundations.

8. WATCH WHAT YOU FLUSH.

Using a plunger on a backed-up toilet.
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Medicines have been detected in groundwater and in marine life in the past, likely from being flushed and lingering in water systems afterwards. And 4500 wet wipes were found in a 154 square-meter portion of the Thames river in 2017—a byproduct of a bathroom staple that doesn't break down in the flushing process like people think.

These are just two examples of products that are often flushed or poured down a drain without a second thought but could build up over time and pollute local waterways, soil, and oceans. Cotton balls, floss, cat litter, insecticides, vegetable oil, paint—this is just a snapshot of products that are harmful for oceans and marine life if flushed. So next time you open that toilet lid to discard a harsh cleaning agent, find out if it's safe.

9. CONSERVE WATER.

Sprinkler system spraying water.
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Any of the water you use in your home is later sent to a sewage treatment plant [PDF] where the pollutants are removed before being reintroduced into local bodies of water. The problems come not only when harmful products and chemicals are flushed, but also when we simply use too much of the available water.

As the Surfrider Foundation points out, excess water at these treatments plants can overwhelm the systems—many of which are older anyway—leading to pollutants getting through and finding their way into oceans, rivers, streams, etc. To do your part, simply conserve the use of water in your home. Take shorter showers, don't leave sinks running, and cut down on any superfluous activities like washing your car for long periods of time.

10. DON'T THROW ANYTHING OVERBOARD.

A bottle floating in an ocean
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Whether you're out on a cruise or fishing on a lake, be mindful of what you leave behind. Never throw any trash overboard, even if you think it's harmless, like a stray fishing hook or line, or something small like a used piece of chewing gum or a cigarette butt. There's a ripple effect to any foreign item that enters a waterway, and often the consequence is that those tiny items amass into a large problem for the local ecosystem. Encourage those around you to be similarly mindful, and take proactive measures to ensure garbage and recycling bins are onboard during your trip.

11. WATCH WHAT YOU EAT.

A mixture of various seafoods
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Being a responsible seafood consumer is a vital part of ocean conservation, and knowing what fish you're eating and where it's coming from is a big part of that. Familiarize yourself [PDF] with the fish you buy and where it was caught when you pick out your next meal, and ask your local supermarket chain or restaurant if their selection of seafood has been farmed in an ethical way that protects the ocean's ecosystem and doesn't pollute the water in the process.

12. REACH OUT TO ELECTED OFFICIALS.

An offshore drilling platform
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What's your state representative or governor's stance on ocean pollution and conservation? Is your state considering offshore drilling, which can result in accidents that impact the environment? Find out what the politicians in your state are doing about the environment and see if it's a plan that will provide a cleaner ocean for future generations.

If your state is in a good place, ask if there is a chance to volunteer to help realize the goals of your elected officials. If your state isn't doing enough about the oceans, write letters and get in contact with both elected officials and local environmental clubs of influence. For instance, the Pacific Fishery Management Council recently voted to protect approximately 140,000 square miles of ocean from bottom trawling, a move that will prevent commercial fishing nets from harming coral and rocky reefs in that area. According to The Pew Charitable Trusts, who were also involved, this vote was a result of five years worth of research and lobbying from environmental groups and charities, and thousands of letters from activists and concerned citizens.

13. STAY UP TO DATE ON THE NEWS.

A person reading the news on their phone.
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Taking care of oceans and waterways requires vigilance, and staying informed is vital to that cause. Read up on the latest products that have been deemed harmful to the ocean or environment (like this recent study on why black plastic can't be recycled the same way as other plastics); keep an eye out for any environmental tragedy, like an oil spill or a tropical storm in your area that requires a cleanup; and be sure you're in the know about any organized rallies or fundraisers you can take part in.

14. UNDERSTAND YOUR CARBON FOOTPRINT.

Car exhaust emitting smoke.
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Carbon dioxide isn't just responsible for pollution in the air—it also makes its way into the ocean. In fact, about a third of manmade CO2 makes its way into the ocean, which equates to about 22 million tons a day. This can cause acidification of the water, which affects the health of the marine life—especially shelled animals—that live there.

Taking stock of your own carbon footprint is important, and it becomes even more urgent when you think of the impact it has on everything. Climate change is all connected with one danger leading to another, leading to another, and so on. See how your energy habits can be more sustainable for the environment and make some much-needed adjustments. Simply driving less, buying energy efficient lights and appliances, and using fewer disposable goods can help.

15. TELL YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY.

Trash on the beach
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Don't keep all this knowledge to yourself! Bring up some of the more important facts to friends and family next time you're at the beach or out at a seafood restaurant. Invite them to join you for a cleanup, and encourage them to be mindful of their own carbon footprint. Your enthusiasm for healthy oceans and environments could be contagious, and you may soon find yourself with a network of like-minded individuals looking to make a difference.

What Do Those Recycling Symbols and Codes Mean?

iStock.com/ChrisSteer
iStock.com/ChrisSteer

Earth Day is here again, serving as an annual reminder of the need to reduce, reuse, and recycle our way to a better planet.

When it comes to the last part of that familiar three-”R” mantra, most people know enough to separate certain items from the rest of their garbage, but much of our modern recycling routine remains a mystery. From the recycling symbol itself to what those numbers on plastic containers actually mean, there's a lot you can learn from your trash before it becomes someone else's treasure.

An International Symbol With An Earthy Origin

The universal recycling symbol—three folded arrows that form a triangle, with the head of one arrow pointing to the tail of the next—was created in 1970 by University of Southern California student Gary Anderson as part of a contest tied to the very first Earth Day. Each arrow of the design represents one of the steps in the recycling process: collecting the recyclable goods after use, breaking them down and reforming them, and then packaging new products in the containers.

Originally designed as an inverted triangle, the symbol was later rotated to the pyramid-like orientation commonly used now.

The Number Game

The American Society of Plastics Industry first began using numbers inside the recycling symbols on plastic containers in 1988 as a way to assist with sorting them. The "Resin Identification Code" uses seven numbers to identify the type of synthetic material used to manufacture the container, with the higher numbers representing less commonly used plastics.

Here's a primer on each of the codes:

1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE/PET)
Usually accompanied by the letters "PETE" or "PET," this resin is generally used for soda bottles and other containers for edible and non-edible goods. When it's not being used to manufacture containers, you might recognize it by another name: polyester. (Yes, it's the stuff that insulates your jackets.) It's also one of the most widely accepted forms of plastic in curbside recycling programs, though the amount of useable material available for new products after breaking down this plastic is relatively small.

2. High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
The second most widely used resin for plastic bottles, HDPE is a stiff, strong material with a high resistance to chemicals, which has made it the go-to plastic for food items like milk and juice, as well as household cleaners and trash bags. It's also easy to break down in the recycling process and easy to reform, making it one of the most efficient consumer plastics. Most curbside recycling programs have no problem with accepting products made from this plastic.

3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
First discovered in the 19th century, PVC is commonly used in building materials today—especially pipes and plumbing material—due to its strength and chemical resistance (although it's occasionally used for some household products). It has a nasty habit of releasing highly carcinogenic toxins into the atmosphere when it's burned, so recycling is a significantly less appealing option for PVC disposal, and it's usually not accepted by curbside recycling programs.

4. Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
This plastic is becoming more common today, especially for manufacturing squeeze bottles and grocery bags. Plastics made from LDPE are usually very strong, and they're regularly used as sealants because of this quality. While they weren't included in curbside recycling programs at first, plastics made from LDPE are now becoming more commonly accepted.

5. Polypropylene (PP)
Regarded as one of the “safest” plastics produced today, PP is generally used for squeezable bottles, bottle caps, and straws. Along with LDPE, it's also used for food-storage containers that can be reused over time. It has an extremely high melting point, so it's one of the best consumer plastics for items that will be exposed to heat. Like LDPE, it's becoming more common for curbside recycling programs to accept items made from this plastic.

6. Polystyrene (PS)
More commonly known as styrofoam, this type of plastic is not only notoriously difficult to recycle, but it's also been shown to leach dangerous toxins over time into anything packaged in it—and even greater amounts of toxins when it's burned. This is the resin usually found in disposable serving trays, egg cartons, and cups, and it's rarely accept by curbside recycling programs due to the danger it poses and the difficulty of recycling it. Basically, this is the worst of the bunch.

7. Everything Else
There are countless other plastics, but very few of them are easily recycled in curbside programs, making this category the catch-all for everything that could conceivably be broken down and reformed, but might be better off reused or reformed in some way that doesn't require a chemical process. This category encompasses everything from bulletproof material to those large water jugs on office coolers, and is rarely included in curbside recycling programs.

Safety In Numbers

For anyone wondering which plastics are safe to reuse in their current form, it's widely accepted that HDPE (2), LDPE (4), and PE (5) can be reused multiple times for edible items, as they're generally resistant to chemicals, haven't been shown to degrade, and don't leach dangerous substances into their contents.

This story first ran in 2013.

What Do the Terms on Energy-Saving Light Bulbs Mean?

Scott Olson, Getty Images
Scott Olson, Getty Images

There's a reason your parents used to scold you for not turning off a light when you left a room. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, an average American household uses up to 5 percent of their total energy expenditure on lighting. Living rooms get flooded with light. Dining rooms and dens are full of lighting accents. Motion lights, hallway lights, bathroom vanity lights, lamps—we like our lives to be nice and bright.

Fortunately, energy-saving lighting sources have largely replaced the conventional incandescent bulbs that once used up a substantial amount of power. Those bulbs heated up a coil, or filament, of tungsten wire that gave off light. Roughly 90 percent of the energy they passed on was in the form of heat, which siphoned off energy and kept utility bills inflated. Today's bulbs brighten without the waste. That's the good news. The bad? The varieties of bulbs can be confusing. If you've ever been lost in the fixtures section of the hardware store, here's a quick primer on what these terms mean.

Halogen Incandescent:

These are incandescent light bulbs that contain a halogen gas-filled capsule around the filament to help increase energy efficiency. While cheaper to operate than a conventional incandescent bulb—they use 25 to 30 percent less energy—they don't produce as much of a cost savings as other options. On the plus side, they reach full brightness immediately. Other choices may take time to warm up.

Compact Florescent Lamp (CFL):

When you see a coiled light bulb, it’s likely to be a CFL, which is simply a downsized version of the tubular florescent lighting seen in commercial spaces. Instead of an electric current traveling through a filament like in an incandescent bulb, the current goes through a tube containing argon and mercury vapor. The resulting ultraviolet light activates phosphor inside the tube, which emits light. It uses one-third of the energy of a halogen incandescent. The downside? They can take a little time to warm up, especially if used outdoors. They also contain mercury, a potential health hazard if the bulb breaks. (See the "mercury" entry below.)

Light Emitting Diode (LED):

This type of bulb uses a semiconductor to convert electricity into light. In addition to being energy-efficient, they usually last eight to 25 times longer than halogen incandescent bulbs and four to eight times longer than CFLs—perhaps as long as 18 to 46 years. You'll probably pay more up front, but the expense is offset by their durability. Most LEDs are compatible with dimming switches, too. Most CFLs aren't, so if that's important to you, you'll want to stick with LED.

Energy Star:

A bulb with an Energy Star label was evaluated by a third party to make sure its energy-saving claims are accurate, and they'll typically have a longer warranty than bulbs without the endorsement.

But what about the "nutritional label" style information box that appears on light bulb packaging? Let's take a closer look.

An example of a label that appears on energy-efficient light bulb packaging is pictured
Federal Trade Commission

Brightness:

You have probably inferred that brightness refers to the light output given off by a bulb. This is measured in lumens and rounded off to the nearest five. (A bulb will never be 822 lumens. It's 820.) The higher the number, the brighter the bulb. Since you're probably used to shopping by wattage, consider that a bulb with 800 lumens is roughly the equivalent of a 60-watt incandescent. A 1100 lumen bulb will resemble a 75-watt bulb.

Estimated Energy Cost:

This is a rough estimate of much it will cost an average household to operate the bulb. What's average? The wattage of the bulb is calculated with three hours of daily operation at a cost of 11 cents per kilowatt. Your actual cost will go up or down whether you use it more or less or pay your energy supplier a different amount.

Life:

This is how long the bulb is expected to last based on the same usage estimated for the energy cost and rounded to the nearest tenth of a year.

Light Appearance:

This refers to the color temperature of the bulb measured in Kelvin, a temperature scale measuring light color. The range is from 2600 K (yellow and warm) to 6600 K (blue and cool). Bright white is about 3500 K. You should probably avoid anything above 3000 K for any interior room.

Energy Used:

This is how much energy the bulb will require and is measured in watts. The lower the wattage, the cheaper it costs to operate. This is where the energy savings materializes, as a 10-watt LED bulb may give off as much light as an old 60-watt incandescent.

Color Rendering Index (CRI):

It's not on all bulb packaging, but if you see it, it refers to how accurate colors will appear under the bulb's light on a scale of 0 to 100. Halogen incandescent bulbs score high. CFLs and LEDs aren't quite as accurate, though they may still get the job done. Try to get a high CRI if you'll be using the bulbs in a bathroom, as skin tone can appear off with lower CRI numbers.

Mercury:

You might see some CFL bulb packaging with a mercury disclosure. This isn't an issue if the bulb remains intact, but if it breaks, it might release potentially hazardous mercury vapor and the introduce the very small possibility of mercury poisoning. Avoid using CFL bulbs in kids' rooms if there's potential for knocking over a lamp or light. Broken bulbs that contain mercury should be cleaned up by following Environmental Protection Agency guidelines—picked up with tape, not vacuumed—and disposed of properly. Old bulbs should be recycled.

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