Dear EarthTalk: How are the world’s coral reefs doing these days? I haven’t heard much about them lately despite all the recent talk about climate change’s ill effects. ~ Jo. S., Bowie, MD
Coral reefs are being hit by climate change in just about every way possible. Wildfire, drought and other land-based climate disasters have captured global headlines, but coral reefs have been bleaching at record levels, and as such their future is uncertain. The science of climate change’s impact on coral reefs is simple. As humans pump greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, the ocean acts as a carbon sink, absorbing carbon dioxide (CO₂) and dissolving it into acid. As a result, ocean acidity has increased by about 25 percent since the early 19th century, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That acidity is incredibly harmful to coral reefs. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), ocean acidification “decreases growth rates and structural integrity” of coral skeletons, damaging their ability to support the diversity of life that makes up a reef ecosystem.
One of the most immediate threats to coral is ocean temperature increases. Coral reefs exist only in narrow bands of water that stay within a moderate temperature range, not too hot or cold. Even moderate temperature increases can cause thermal stress that contributes to coral bleaching and infectious disease. The ocean has warmed 1.3 degrees (F) since the Industrial Revolution, meaning many reefs are stuck in dangerously hot water. The stress on reef creatures has been immense. When coral polyps—small, anemone-like animals that form the living base of reefs—get stressed, they expel the symbiotic algae that grows on them and provides them with nutrients. This is what’s called coral bleaching. With no algae to feed coral and give it its color, the abandoned coral turns white. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s dead, but with no nutrient supply its ability to grow and fight off diseases is significantly hampered.
Warming water also causes stronger and bigger storms, which can destroy entire reef systems as they pass. Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas in 2019 and destroyed 30 percent of the islands’ coral reefs. In 2005, Hurricane Rita caused extensive damage to coral reefs in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Texas. Research suggests some storms may at times be beneficial for coral reefs by lowering water temperature. The influx of cool water can reduce heat stress on polyps, according to the Reef Resilience Network. But that temporary relief isn’t enough to make up for long-term warming.
As surface temperatures increase, scientists hope that coral reefs might be able to slowly move themselves into cooler water—or that deep-water reefs already exist undiscovered. Researchers in Tahiti announced in February 2022 that they had found a nearly two-mile-long healthy coral reef in uncharacteristically deep water, leading to speculation that more deep-water reefs might exist in unexplored areas.
Still, the rate of human-caused warming far outpaces the speed at which coral reefs can move. Several start-ups and labs around the world are developing small, human-made coral systems, which could eventually be deposited in the ocean and grow into full reefs. But that technology is still a long way away. Until then, cutting emissions by driving less, using energy-efficient appliances and divesting from fossil fuel companies is the best way individuals can look out for the future of coral reefs.
CONTACTS: EPA on ocean acidification, epa.gov/ocean-acidification/understanding-science-ocean-and-coastal-acidification#ocean; NOAA, oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/coralreef-climate.html; Tahiti deep-water reef, washingtonpost.com/world/2022/01/20/tahiti-coral-reef-discovery/
Dear EarthTalk: I’m looking to furnish my new apartment and wondering if you could point me toward some sustainable options? ~ B.C., New York, NY
In the U.S., sustainable living has gained momentum in recent years as more and more Americans make conscious efforts to reduce their carbon footprint. Reusable shopping bags, greater recycling, and electric cars are major successes when it comes to greening our everyday lives. And a lesser known but no less substantial contributor to environmental damage comes from a source of our comfort: home furnishings.
Economically speaking, Americans spend nearly $120 billion on furniture and bedding per year, and 84 percent buy furnishings new. This increased demand, leading to increased production, means that companies looking to cut costs rely on cheaper, less sustainable materials. This results in to furniture that’s not built to last and therefore ends up on the curb. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that nearly nine million tons of furniture enter landfills every year. On top of that, the manufacturing of many of these furnishings consumes considerable amounts of natural resources, and some may contain toxic chemicals that impact both the environment and human health. Fortunately, there are ethical and sustainable options available when it comes to furnishing a home or apartment.
A large number of companies now offer green-friendly products that use sustainable materials and manufacturing methods. Chicago’s What WE Make specializes in furniture using reclaimed wood, custom-made-to-order. Masaya & Co. produces handmade tables, chairs, bed frames, dressers and more using sustainable materials and low-impact methods, and for every product sold, the company plants 100 trees in Nicaragua, where products are manufactured. Alabama Sawyer makes furniture from local tree waste, and Emeco makes chairs from recycled materials and uses 100 percent recyclable shipping and packing materials. Medley makes all types of home furnishings with sustainable materials like bamboo and organic latex, free of toxic chemical finishes. Avocado Green Mattress makes eco-friendly bedding with non-toxic materials and ethically sourced labor practices. Etsy partners with sellers who specialize in items crafted with reclaimed plastic fibers, cotton, linen, wool, and responsibly-sourced woods.
Second-hand furniture offers further options for sustainable furnishings. “The most sustainable products are those that already exist,” says Nicole Sarto of Stanford magazine. Local charity shop items tend to be quality pickings simply in need of washing or a new paint job. IKEA now has a furniture buyback program, giving store credit for second-hand IKEA furniture that they refurbish and resell. Furniture rental is also an option for sustainably furnishings, especially if a person changes residence frequently.
Beyond furniture, the smaller details of a home or apartment can also be sustainably sourced. Water-saving showerheads, eco-friendly lighting, and energy-saving curtains and blinds are all items to consider when furnishing a space. Like any sustainable lifestyle choice, furnishing a home or apartment is about more than choosing a comfortable couch or chic end table. It’s about how the item was made, what it’s made with, and where it’s ultimately going to end up.
CONTACTS: Environmental Impact of Furniture, theworldcounts.com/challenges/consumption/other-products/environmental-impact-of-furniture/story; 9 Ways to Furnish Your Home Sustainably on a Budget, neutrinobursts.com/how-to-furnish-your-home-sustainably/; 12 Ethical & Sustainable Furniture Brands To D-Eco-Rate Your Home, sustainablejungle.com/sustainable-living/ethical-sustainable-furniture/; Is Furniture Rental Worth It To Furnish Your Home? Yes! roomservicebycort.com/about-us/blog/furniture-rental-worth-it
Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that Americans waste a huge amount of water and energy getting their clothes clean and dry. Do you have any tips for greening the laundry process? ~ B. Jones, Troy, NY
It’s true that Americans use huge amounts of water and energy to keep their clothes clean, dry and soft. Indeed, the average U.S. home expends about 12,000 gallons of water on some 300 loads of laundry per year. The non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that as much as 20 percent of the water used in our homes goes down the washing machine’s drain. Meanwhile, roughly10 percent of a home’s total electricity use goes toward laundry. No doubt, tightening up this one aspect of taking care of ourselves could make a serious dent in our carbon footprints and overall environmental impact.
Perhaps the quickest way to energy- and water-savings is to upgrade from an older laundry machine. Conventional washing machines (built before 2011) use some 40 gallons of water per load, while newer “HE” (high efficiency) machines can do just as good or better on 14 gallons or less. And since these HE machines have so much less water to heat up and are designed for maximum efficiency, they also use 50-80 percent less energy. They also spin faster, which removes more water from the clothes and thus saves dryer time. Whether or not your machine is HE, set it to the “high spin speed” or “extended spin” setting to remove excess moisture from clothes to reduce the amount of time and energy needed in the dryer.
Line-drying clothes is by far the most energy-efficient route, yet most of us (80 percent) rely on dryers to do the job quickly, despite the impact. While HE washing machines have been around for a decade now, it wasn’t until the last few years that more efficient clothes dryers became widely available. Newer units, especially those that meet the federal government’s stringent EnergySTAR efficiency standards, automatically sense how long to run and when to shut off based on the size/weight of the load.
If you have an older (conventional) dryer, consider purchasing a SmartDry sensor which attaches to the inside of your machine and then sends you wireless alerts when the load is dry, when delicates should come out, or if the machine has stopped working. The $60 device saves an average of 15 minutes of dry time per load. While it’s no replacement for a new machine, it can help you keep an older one from clogging up the landfill while putting off the expense and resource use of replacing it for a while.
Another low-cost way to reduce your laundry’s environmental impact is by using a Cora Ball, an ingenious little recycled/recyclable plastic ball that catches plastic microfibers that shed off fleece clothing in the washing machine before it winds up in our waterways and oceans.
And if you like fabric softener but don’t like subjecting yourself and those around you to harsh chemicals—most fabric softeners use dipalmethyl hydroxyethylammoinum methosulfate, a synthetic chemical with softening and anti-static properties—try one of Friendsheep’s Eco Dryer Balls, which naturally softens and fluffs laundry by gently tumbling in the dryer alongside your clothes, separating the fabrics so heat can flow better, reducing wrinkles and static cling while reducing dry time.
CONTACTS: Saving Water And Energy Through Clothes Washer Replacement, nrdc.org/resources/saving-water-and-energy-through-clothes-washer-replacement; Residential Clothes Washers Qualifying Product List, library.cee1.org/content/qualifying-product-lists-residential-clothes-washers; SmartDry, amzn.to/3zJfTQG; Friendsheep Eco Dryer Balls, amzn.to/3xcxVZM