Oceans cover over 70 percent of the Earth’s surface. All life depends on them for food, biodiversity, and even to stabilize global weather patterns.
But experts say that by 2050 there may be more plastic than fish in the sea, and that mass marine extinction, global warming, and acidification will probably devastate these precious ecosystems.
While we may not be able to reverse the damage, following these steps can make a big difference for the future of our oceans.
1. Avoid single-use plastics
Single-use plastics, like water bottles, straws, to-go food containers, plastic bags, and product packaging, are wreaking havoc on our ocean ecosystems. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean each year. This means there could be a pound of plastic for every three pounds of fish in the ocean within the next decade alone.
2. Examine your plastic habits
To minimize your impact, avoid using or purchasing unnecessary single-use plastics. In most cases, this is a simple behavior shift. Take a few minutes to think about where you might be able to change your habits. For example, do you have reusable cloth or mesh bags for your groceries? While many grocery stores in the United States have outlawed plastic shopping bags, plastic produce bags are still readily available. Bringing our own produce bags is a simple step we can all take to keep those pesky produce bags out of our ocean.
3. Eliminate plastic straws
Eliminating plastic straws could go a long way towards reducing ocean debris. Purchase reusable metal, glass, or bamboo straws and keep one on hand while you’re out. That way, if you end up purchasing a beverage, you can skip the plastic straw and use your own. If every American sipped out of just five fewer straws per year, we could keep more than 1.5 billion straws out of landfills and our ocean.
4. Purchase plastic-free goods
Companies are getting smarter about the materials used to make their products and packaging. Many producers realize that customers are looking for plastic-free alternatives and have stepped up their game, using paper, cloth, glass, and other reusable materials instead.
Next time you need to buy shampoo, for example, try a shampoo bar packaged on paper. Need a new shaving razor? Instead of buying the cheap plastic variety that inevitably ends up in our oceans, purchase a long-lasting metal razor with replaceable blades.
5. Use sustainable menstrual products
Menstrual products have sustainable alternatives. Menstrual cups, made from silicone or other long-lasting materials, can help avoid thousands of plastic tampon applicators from entering landfills and eventually our oceans each year.
6. If you can’t avoid plastic, recycle it properly
Despite the recent progress made in this arena, many products are still nearly impossible to purchase without the accompanying plastic. This means that it’s even more important for us to recycle properly. Lack of recycling education, hastiness and even apathy contribute to poor recycling compliance.
People throw their plastics into the trash rather than recycling them, which contributes to overflowing landfills. Worse yet, littered plastic ends up in the street, gutter or nature, where it can make its way into storm drains, canals or rivers, and ultimately winds up in oceans.
Here in the United States, too much of our plastic ends up in landfills when it could be recycled. But with a little effort, we can change that. Educate yourself about how to recycle properly, and pass your knowledge on to others in your household and community. While “films” like plastic bags can’t be recycled in curbside bins in many municipalities, drop-off locations exist to recycle these items. Look for the How2Recycle label on plastic packaging and follow the directions for proper recycling.
7. Don’t forget about microplastics
According to the National Ocean Service, microplastics are small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long, which can be harmful to our ocean and aquatic life. Scientists have seen microplastics everywhere they have looked: in deep oceans, in Arctic snow and ice, in shellfish, table salt, drinking water, and even beer.
These tiny pieces could take decades or more to degrade fully and can be pieces of larger plastic waste or manufactured microbeads present in many cosmetic and personal care products. Other sources of microplastics are plastic specks sheared off from car tires on roads, and synthetic microfibers shed from clothing.
Oceanographers recently estimated that there were between 15 trillion and 51 trillion microplastic particles floating in oceans worldwide. And although many countries, including the United States, banned companies from using microbeads in their products back in 2015, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Beat the Microbead have found that they’re still being sold.
The Beat the Microbead cosmetics database shows that out of 450 scrubs, 67 contain microplastics and 75 contain skeptical microplastics. Additionally, 137 products contain both microplastics and skeptical plastics. Consumers can educate themselves to make smarter personal care purchases using the database, and by checking if a company is an affiliated Zero Plastic Inside brand.
8. Reduce your carbon footprint
Do you know your personal carbon footprint? According to The Nature Conservancy, a carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by our actions. Greenhouse gases make our oceans more acidic, which contributes to the loss of corals on a global scale as their calcium skeletons are weakened by the increasing acidity of the water. You can reduce your carbon footprint by adopting some of these simple measures.
9. Lessen your car dependency
Instead of driving everywhere, consider walking, riding a bike, or using public transportation. If you live somewhere where public transportation isn’t readily available, or where walking and biking infrastructure has not been developed, form a carpool group within your community. Driving alone contributes unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. Leaving your car at home even one time per week can greatly reduce the stress on our atmosphere and our oceans.
10. Consider your energy footprint
How many lights are on in your living space or office right now? Do they all need to be on? Think about your energy expenditure throughout your day, and where you might be able to cut back. During the day, sit by a window and use the natural sunlight rather than electricity for your lighting needs. Unplug your electronics when you’re not using them, as they can use energy and drain power even when turned off.
11. Change up your carnivore diet
Americans eat a lot of meat (including chicken, beef and pork), and the rest of the world is starting to follow in our footsteps. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans eat an average of 138.4 pounds of meat per person per year.
Industrially producing meat takes a huge toll on the environment, including the contribution of carbon dioxide, which we know acidifies oceans. Another harmful byproduct of industrial agriculture is the need for animal feed, which is often grown using massive amounts of fertilizer and pesticides that end up in water sources and harm those ecosystems.
12. Buy local pasture-raised products
Eating pasture-raised rather than factory farm-raised animal products is helpful, but eating less of them, in general, is even better. According to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), livestock alone accounts for over 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
13. Adopt a vegan or vegetarian diet
Adopting a vegan or vegetarian diet could cut those emissions by 70 percent and 63 percent, respectively. But if you don’t want to commit just yet, try eliminating meat from your diet just once or twice per week. That will still make a difference for our oceans.
14. Know where your seafood comes from
If that last point had you considering substituting land-based meat for a pescatarian diet, you’re not alone. But make sure to check that your seafood choices are sustainable.
According to Seafood Watch, environmentally sustainable seafood is wild or farmed seafood that is harvested in ways that don’t harm the environment or other wildlife helping to ensure healthy and resilient ocean ecosystems.
Wild-caught seafood, for example, should only come from populations that are well-managed and not over-fished, using fishing gear with minimal impact on habitat and other wildlife.
15. Make the most sustainable choice available
Seafood Watch recommends consumers ask their seafood providers the question: “Do you serve sustainable seafood?” While restaurants and businesses won’t always know the answer to this, asking the question influences them to think about it and potentially change their ways.
It also helps build demand for sustainable products and encourages businesses to improve their sourcing information. While at a restaurant or grocery store, consumers can also look for seafood that has been Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified for a safe bet.
16. Purchase sustainable seafood choices
Check out this guide from Seafood Watch or view their recommendations database if you’re interested in making more sustainable seafood choices. Their website rates seafood products as “Best Choice,” “Good Alternative,” or “Avoid” based on a variety of factors, including the environmental sustainability of the known harvesting practices. To use their database, you’ll need to know three things about the seafood you’re looking to purchase: the species, where it is from, and how it was caught or farmed. This is another instance where asking the provider may be necessary to get the most accurate information.
17. Explore the oceans (responsibly)
Jacques-Yves Cousteau said, “People protect what they love.” One tactic environmentalists have used successfully for decades is to build up humankind’s connection to nature, because it’s more difficult to destroy something you feel connected to. That’s why building a relationship with the ocean and the smaller bodies of water connected to it can reframe the way people think about ocean conservation. Even if you can’t get out there, plenty of online opportunities to explore the oceans exist as well. Check out Oceana’s Marine Life Encyclopedia or watch shows like Our Planet on Netflix.
18. Travel smarter
While planning your next ocean getaway, consider booking through a responsible travel company. Find one committed to protecting wildlife, empowering local communities, and using guides who are aware of rules and best practices. You can usually find this information online, but if they don’t make it readily available, you may need to ask to see a sustainability report or any eco-friendly certifications the company may (or may not) have. If you’re set on taking a cruise for your next vacation, do some research to find the most environmentally friendly option.
19. Respect of marine life & habitats
Once you’re on your trip, be respectful of marine life and habitats. Practice responsible boating, kayaking, and other recreational activities on the water. Never throw anything overboard and be aware of marine life in the waters around you. Resist the urge to interfere with nesting sea turtles on beaches and make sure your sunscreen isn’t harmful to sensitive coral reef systems.
20. Avoid purchasing real coral jewelry products
Another way to explore ocean ecosystems sustainably is to be mindful of your purchases. Avoid purchasing real coral jewelry, shark teeth or other shark products, and tortoiseshell accessories made from endangered hawksbill turtles. Don’t support the industry that damages fragile ecosystems and threatens critically endangered species, even on vacation. This may take a little more research ahead of time, but it’s worth it to save our oceans.
21. Use your voice (and your vote)
Talk to your friends, family, and community about what you’ve learned to help save our oceans. Teaching our peers is one of the most important ways we can use our voice to enact sustainable practices on a larger scale.
Changing your own behavior is powerful, but influencing others to do the same will increase results exponentially. If you have a social media account like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or TikTok, consider sharing what you’re doing to help the oceans. Maybe your followers will follow suit!
22. Elect officials who care about the oceans
The next time you prepare to vote, find out if your public officials support policies that can help us protect marine life and our oceans. Do your research on candidates and make an informed decision, then exercise your right (and responsibility) to vote.
Remember, many sustainable policies can have a positive impact on our oceans, even if they don’t directly use the word “ocean.” As we’ve learned, decreasing our carbon footprint and improving recycling infrastructure can go a long way toward protecting marine environments. Look for candidates who will support sustainability in all avenues, because it all comes back to the ocean.
And don’t let Election Day be the last time they hear from you. Contact your local representatives and lawmakers to follow up regularly, reminding them of the environmental policies you care about most.
Your elected officials might not know how important these issues are to their constituents, and they’ll need your vote if they want to remain in office after the next election. So, make sure you tell them. It’s up to us to make lawmakers aware of the crises facing marine life and our oceans.
23. Support organizations that support the ocean
After you vote with your ballot, remember to vote with your wallet. Support local restaurants, grocery stores, and businesses in your community that offer sustainable seafood and alternatives to single-use plastics.
By shopping at sustainable retailers, you’re increasing the demand for these products and services. And, by avoiding spending money with companies who don’t support the environment, you’re telling them that they are not valuable to you unless they do better.
You can even sign petitions online to tell retail giants like Amazon to provide more sustainable packaging options.
There are many nonprofits and NGOs who are doing great work to save and protect our oceans. Here’s a list of some of the top ocean defenders. Consider donating time or money to one of these organizations if you can and check out this list from Oceana to learn about other ways to help.
Even if you don’t have money to spare, you can volunteer to clean up a local beach or pick up litter along a nearby lake or river. There’s bound to be an organization in your area that’s committed to helping the environment, and as an added bonus, you may just meet other like-minded people in the process!
24. Keep on learning
The more you learn about the ocean, the better prepared you’ll be to inspire change and help others do the same. Thankfully, there are many ways to educate yourself about the ocean and the challenges it faces, from books and documentaries to websites, museums, art exhibits, and more.
Keep up on the latest news and research about ocean sustainability by following free publications like Nature, Grist, and SustainGreen. Use social media to follow credible sources, like scientific organizations and ocean-protecting nonprofits, and fill your newsfeed with valuable information you can share with your networks.
Knowledge is one of the most powerful avenues for change, and it’s well within your grasp.
Did you find this green article helpful? If so, share it with your friends and colleagues!