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11 “Innocent” Things You’re Doing That Harm the World’s Oceans

By the year 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish—you can help prevent that by reconsidering your use of these disposable plastic items.

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Aerial view of sea waves breaking on shore.Nazar Abbas Photography/Getty Images

Small decisions with a big impact

When we learned about risks to the oceans in school, it usually involved a lesson about a large oil spill that left local wildlife—ducklings, in particular—in a slick coat of dark oil. And while that is definitely a terrible scenario, most of us won’t find ourselves in charge of a massive oil tanker anytime soon. But we are faced with countless choices every day as consumers, and whether or not we realize it, even some small decisions can do major damage to our oceans. From the foods we eat to the sunscreen and clothes we wear to the plastic products we use, we could all probably do a better job of being more mindful of the impact we’re having on the oceans. Here are 11 innocent things you’re doing that harm the world’s oceans.

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EnvironmentKenny Williamson/Getty Images

Single-use plastic straws

We already know that plastic bags and soda can rings are bad for the environment and end up in the ocean. But few people realize that straws are among the top ten items found during beach clean-ups and can cause a lot of harm to seabirds, turtles, and other marine creatures, according to Dune Ives, PhD, executive director of Lonely Whale, an incubator for ideas that drive impactful change on behalf of our ocean. “For the vast majority of us, refusing the single-use plastic straw is the easiest and simplest way to take action today to address plastic pollution,” she tells Reader’s Digest. “If we don’t act now, by the year 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish (by weight).” It’s no secret that single-use plastic straws are bad for the ocean, but here are 14 mysteries of the ocean scientists still can’t explain.

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Meat On Barbecue GrillHeath Cajandig / EyeEm/Getty Images

Eating beef

Though we may be aware of the impact that eating farmed beef has on air pollution, some may not realize that it has an effect on the oceans too. Raising beef uses a lot of water and releases methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, according to Sandy Trautwein, PhD, vice president of animal husbandry at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California. “Eat less beef, and instead choose sustainable seafood, vegetables, and chicken,” she tells Reader’s Digest. “Ninety percent of the world’s fish are caught at or above sustainable levels. Seafood that is farmed or wild-caught in the United States is usually more sustainable than imported wild-caught seafood.” Find out what would happen if everyone stopped eating meat just one day a week.

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Mature man sitting in his Land Cruiser by the beachEternity in an Instant/Getty Images

Driving too much

From driving our cars to powering our homes and businesses, human fossil fuel use has caused a significant increase in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. And whether or not we realize it, it’s harming the world’s oceans. “Increased CO2 levels in our ocean makes the water more acidic, and acidic waters make it more difficult for calcifying sea animals to produce the carbonate they need to survive,” says Guy Harvey, PhD, a marine scientist and artist in Florida. “This includes animals like coral, whose reefs protect the coastline and support billions of dollars of industries; shellfish, like seafood favorites oysters and crabs; and plankton, the foundation of the marine food chain.” The good news is that healthy oceans can actually help reverse climate change. “One can help by reducing energy use and supporting renewable resources,” he adds. You can reduce your carbon footprint by making these tiny changes.

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Plastic drink bottle washed up at beachMB Photography/Getty Images

Single-use plastic water bottles

Though it seems like they’ve been around forever, single-use plastic water bottles are a relatively new phenomenon, entering the market in the 1990s. “Today, 500 billion plastic bottles are used around the globe annually, one million single-use plastic bottles are sold every minute around the world yet only around 30 percent are recycled,” Ives explains. In the year 2017 alone, single-use plastic water bottles accounted for 26 percent of all new virgin plastic PET polymers (made from petrochemicals, which are bad for the environment), she says. Opting for reusable water bottles instead can not only help people save money, but it can also improve ocean health, as plastic bottles are among the top five most common items found in beach cleanups around the world, Ives adds. Want to learn more? Here are 13 fascinating facts about the world’s oceans.

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Close-Up Of Glitter Bottles On TableNatália Jakubcová / EyeEm/Getty Images

Glitter

Not only is glitter really annoying and impossible to get out of your house, but it’s also terrible for the oceans. “Most glitter products used for children’s arts and crafts are made from plastic and when washed down the kitchen sink will contribute to the growing problem of microplastics in our environment,” Ives explains. “Microplastics are consumed by fish, birds, and sea turtles. One study found that microplastics have even contaminated the deepest point of the ocean, Challenger Deep, in the western Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench.” But you don’t have to give up your children’s craft projects—instead, opt for eco-friendly alternatives like food coloring and salts, she says. If you’re committed to glitter, check out biodegradable glitter options such as Bioglitter. Some people’s trash is turned into another’s treasure, like these 15 brilliant products made from recycled ocean plastics.

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cleaning a sink with yellow spongedeepblue4you/Getty Images

Household chemical use and dumping

Thanks to the coronavirus, we’re all probably using more cleaning supplies than usual these days. But household consumers need to think carefully before they pour chemicals down the drain, according to Lindsay French, the STEM education coordinator at Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach, Florida. “Unfortunately, all of the pipes in our homes lead out to our oceans,” she tells Reader’s Digest. “Improper disposal of chemicals can lead to polluting our oceans and marine life that inhabit them.” Instead, she recommends opting for sustainable alternatives—like ones that don’t contain phosphorus or strong chemicals that might otherwise affect our water quality or contribute to coral bleaching—and safely disposing of household chemicals through recycling programs. So exactly how many oceans do we have? Here’s what you need to know.

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Belgium, rubber glove lying on sandy beach at North Sea coastWestend61/Getty Images

COVID waste

In the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the steps we take to protect ourselves can actually be harming the oceans. Talk a walk down a city street today and you’ll likely see latex gloves and face masks on the ground alongside plastic bags and old newspapers. In other words, the coronavirus is changing the type of waste we make, and what could potentially end up in the oceans. “For example, a washable cloth face mask is more environmentally friendly than a disposable one, and reusable utensils are safe when washed appropriately,” Ives says. “With a chance of more pandemics in the future now is the time to reconsider how we protect ourselves and the environment.” Here’s how to DIY your own reusable face mask.

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Raw shrimpClaudia Totir/Getty Images

Eating non-sustainable seafood

The idea that there are always “plenty of fish in the sea” is not only a terrible way to approach dating, it’s also not a great mindset when it comes to sourcing food. For starters, we know today that fish and shellfish consume large amounts of plastics and microplastics. “In fact, if you live in the United Kingdom and eat shellfish, it is thought that you are likely to consume up to 11,000 particles of plastic each year,” Ives explains. “We also know that 90 percent of our global fisheries are fully fished or overfished.” To protect the ocean and yourselves, Ives advises that we choose plant-based diets and know where your fish is coming from. “When ordering, ask from where the fish was harvested and how it was harvested,” she says. “If your fishmonger or server doesn’t know, it may not be considered sustainable.” Here’s more information on whether the ocean is really running out of fish.

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flying balloonsvisual7/Getty Images

Releasing balloons

A balloon release is a popular way to end a memorial or celebration, but as lovely as the balloons symbolically floating into the sky might be, it’s terrible for oceans. “All balloons and their streamers return to Earth as debris, hurting animals and the wider environment,” Ives explains. “Released balloons can travel for many miles and pollute even the most pristine places, as well as our oceans.” Balloons are the highest-risk plastic debris item for seabirds—32 times more likely to kill than ingesting hard plastics, according to Ives. Instead, she suggests celebrating and commemorating with sustainable options like sky lanterns, paper streamers, or wildflowers. Balloons aren’t the only things that land in the water; here are 17 of the strangest things found by deep-sea divers.

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Woman applying sunscreen, MaldivesImage Source/Getty Images

Sunscreen

Putting on a thick layer of sunblock is good protection for your skin, but picking the wrong one can be harmful to our oceans. Specifically, many sunscreens contain harmful chemicals to our reefs ecosystems, including Oxybenzone and Butylparaben, French explains. “Oxybenzone is a sunscreen ingredient that disrupts coral reproduction, causes coral bleaching and damages coral DNA,” she says. “Whereas, Butylparaben is a preservative ingredient shown to cause coral bleaching.” When selecting a sunscreen, consumers should try to consciously purchase products such as biodegradable, non-toxic, reef-safe sunscreen, such as Baby Bum’s reef-safe and vegan products. See what the world’s most polluted beaches used to look like.

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Neatly hung clothes on hangerslingqi xie/Getty Images

Purchasing clothing made out of plastic

Whether or not we realize it, a lot of the clothing we wear is made from fabrics made of synthetic fibers. And it’s not just apparel: towels and bedsheets can be made of plastic-based materials too. “These plastic pieces are found within strands of fiber and can break off into tiny pieces for even the smallest organisms down the food chain (e.g., plankton) to eat,” French says. For example, polyester, which is found in a variety of clothing, is a type of plastic in a fiber form. “Upon washing polyester materials, these tiny fibers make their way down the washing machine drain and unfortunately into the ocean,” she explains. Read on for 20 tiny everyday changes you can make to help the environment.