Sink Or Swim
What’s happening to our waterways—and what you can do to help.
Water, water everywhere. It’s true, really—each of us is comprised of mostly water (55% for adult women, 60% for men), we’re supposed to be drinking it by the liter every day, and it surrounds us in the waterways that flow through our landscape.
Those waterways—our lakes, rivers, seas and oceans—are on our minds. (This is Earth Month, after all.) On the surface, these bodies of water are nearly always beguiling, but what’s happening within is a different story. Water can become contaminated and polluted by all sorts of substances, and most of them worldwide have been to some degree. These are the main offenders.
Not a surprise, right? Chances are, you’ve heard of the many ways that plastic is infiltrating our aquatic network, and our oceans in particular. When plastic (meaning things like plastic grocery bags, bottles, straws and synthetic fibers from fabrics) ends up in the ocean, it gets broken apart over time. That’s not to say it’s biodegrading—plastic doesn’t do that—it just means it’s being broken down into smaller plastic parts, commonly called microplastics. Some plastics actually start out micro, like the tiny plastic pellets (called “nurdles”) used to create larger plastic products, and microbeads.
As plastic breaks down and gets smaller and smaller, it becomes easier and easier for marine animals to ingest. Nurdles and microbeads already resemble fish eggs in size and shape, so they’re bound to be snacked upon, but larger plastics are fair game, too. A whale seemingly starved to death after eating 80 pounds of plastic instead of food—he was just one of the 100,000 marine mammals that UNESCO estimates die from plastic debris each year, with more than a million sea birds annually meeting the same fate.
In 2016, the World Economic Forum released a report with a whopper of a statistic, that was shared in a Washington Post piece: “If we keep producing (and failing to properly dispose of) plastics at predicted rates, plastics in the ocean will outweigh fish pound for pound in 2050.”
Pesticides—a broad term for any compound designed to kill things, like insects, fungus, rodents and invasive plants—were created with the best of intentions. A very successful type of pesticide called organochlorine (OC) helped to control the spread of lethal diseases like malaria and typhus. It was banned in the 1960s, however, after it was found to have the ability to "pollute the tissues of virtually every life form on the earth.”
Pesticides also mean greater yields on farms, since pests are no longer around to feast on crops. In exchange, humans experience roughly 1 million instances of death and of chronic disease due to pesticide poisoning worldwide each year.
And these pesticides, in all their forms, unfailingly end up in our waters. A study of all the major river basins in America showed that more than 90% of water and fish samples contained one or, more often, several types of pesticides.
Not our bodies, but our lifestyle. The runoff from modern human life into oceans, rivers and streams is diverse and damaging. All of our myriad fuels and solvents, not to mention synthetic chemicals and antibiotics, can and do find their way into our drains, which feed into the larger network of water in our environment. And we tend to waste the water we haven’t yet polluted through our personal care routines, leaving plenty of room for day-to-day improvement in water awareness, conservation and protection.
Five Ways You can Help
Start By Saving
Not polluting is important. So is saving the water that’s still clean. Using less water in your daily routine is a cinch: turning off the faucet while you brush your teeth can save up to four gallons a minute, and shortening your showers to five minutes or less can save up to 1,000 gallons a month. And if you have a dishwasher, by all means, use it—newer machines are more efficient and use less water than handwashing.
Skip The Shampoo
The shampoo-rinse-conditioner-rinse part of your shower uses about 150 gallons of water a month. But most of us don’t actually need to wash our hair every day, particularly with the range of dry shampoos on the market. Try skipping a day (or two, or three!) and see how your hair feels. You might even get some nice next-day texture out of the deal.
Mind the Drain
If it’s going down a drain in your house or on your street, it’s heading to a waterway. Pour liquid fats and cooking greases into a can for disposal, or better yet, pour them into your compost bin. Don’t flush anything that isn’t specifically meant to be flushed—and that goes double for medicines and cleaners. Nearly every municipality will have a drop-off center where these things can be disposed of safely. And keep any motor oil, paint or chemicals away from storm drains.
You really, really don’t want pesticides in the yard you mow and that your kids and pets play on, or in the garden you tend. Talk with your local plant nursery to see if they have natural pest control recommendations for you, or do some, ahem, digging of your own into organic gardening or natural pesticides.
Look for Litter
A rainstorm will easily push littered plastic bottles and loose plastic debris into your neighborhood storm drains—but not if you pick them up and drop them into a recycling bin first. It might sound quaint, but picking up littered plastic trash that you find while, say, walking your dog or going for a jog can make a real, immediate difference.
Who Is Being A Force Of Nature?
Anyone who has to quite literally wade through pollution is going to want to put an end to it, so who better to serve as first responders to an aquatic disaster than surfers. The Surfrider Foundation has been working to protect beaches and oceans—and the ocean’s epic waves—for more than 30 years. Save the Waves is dedicated to the conservation of global coastlines, and Surfers Against Sewage is a UK-based organization that’s also devoted to the cause. There are almost certainly local organizations playing a similar role for the waterways in your region—search for “Friends Of [Your Waterway]” to see how you can get involved.
As is the case with so many environmental initiatives, Patagonia is setting an example that can span industries and have a global impact. They made a documentary to raise awareness about the removal of dams to restore the natural flow of water and marine life, and they partnered with Ocean Wise’s Plastic Lab to study the impact that microfibers from textiles, Patagonia’s main product, are having on marine life. They’ve even updated their company mission statement—today, it simply reads, “We’re in business to save our home planet.”
Brands like Adidas are taking an upstream approach by finding innovative ways to reuse ocean plastic. They partnered with Parley for the Oceans to use the equivalent of eleven plastic bottles worth of waste to design a new sneaker—the first run of which sold out immediately. They plan to sell five million more pairs this year.
United By Blue is an outdoor apparel brand and a certified B-Corp that’s committed to removing a pound of trash from the ocean for every product sold. They organize cleanups across the country and their employees lead the volunteers to and through the debris—they’ve collected more than 1.5 million pounds of trash to date.
And then, there’s us. At Burt’s Bees, we’re taking a multi-faceted approach to water management and conservation to help offset the pressure that our business puts on the environment.
We’ve purchased water restoration certificates from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, returning millions of gallons of water—the equivalent of our own consumption—to watersheds like the Colorado River and the Middle Deschutes Watershed region in Oregon.
We live by the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle mantra. Our packaging is made with a high percentage of post-consumer-recycled (PCR) content, with an average of 52% PCR in our plastic packages. We choose high-integrity materials for our packaging—things like aluminum, steel, paper, glass and plastics that are more readily recyclable—making it easier for everyone who uses our products to recycle them. And we’ve done away with excess packaging at every turn, cutting as much as 50% from some products. Less packaging with high recyclability means less fodder for landfills, and fewer chances for our packaging to end up in a waterway.
We don’t use plastic microbeads in scrubs, and we don’t use chemical sunscreens in our products—they’ve been shown to contribute to the bleaching of coral reefs. So, when you choose our products over alternatives that contain plastics and chemical sunscreens, know that you’re making a choice that benefits both your skin and the environment.
This is a big issue, but there’s a widespread effort underway to help stop the flow of pollution into our waters—and you can be part of it. Share your personal water-pollution-fighting ways with us on Instagram (@BurtsBees) with the tag #ForceForNature. Keep up the good work!