Week of 12/18/2005

Dear EarthTalk: What can scuba divers and snorkelers do to avoid harming coral reefs?

—Harry Chase, New Orleans, LA

According to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, coral reefs are becoming increasingly threatened around the world due to coastal development, over-fishing and pollution. Some 25 percent of the world’s original coral reefs have already been lost, and the process is accelerating, in part due to global warming, which increases ocean temperatures and makes the corals more susceptible to disease and die-off.

Meanwhile, the growing popularity of scuba diving and snorkeling has put additional pressure on these already fragile coral systems.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), direct physical damage to coral reefs by divers and snorkelers is well documented. The damage inflicted consists mostly of breaking fragile, branched corals or causing lesions to massive corals. Research indicates that reefs degrade quickly and "die," essentially, once a certain level of use by divers is exceeded. As such, UNEP recommends that governments limit to 6,000 per year the number of diver and snorkeler visits to any one area.

Many divers fail to think about the harm their pleasure trips to coral reefs can do. Damage is often caused by simple carelessness. Hillary Viders, author of Marine Conservation for the 21st Century, says that divers should learn about the fragility of the reefs they plan to visit, and always practice "minimal impact" when around coral. "Even a seemingly insignificant brush against coral can remove its protective coating, making it vulnerable to algae infestation, and
fatal disease," she reports.

Divers should also take care that their kicking doesn’t ruin reef structures, and it is important not to touch coral with your hands. Some diving instructors even recommend against using gloves, because they tend to make people clumsier and less aware of their surroundings. Photographers should take care not to lean on corals when taking pictures.

Certification programs teach proper diving technique, although divers often forget that safety basics like carrying the proper weight to control buoyancy and keeping equipment close to the body to prevent it from getting caught can also prevent reef damage. The Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) has partnered with Project AWARE, a non-profit organization dedicated to coral reef protection, to offer a specialty course focusing on coral reef conservation for environmentally conscious divers. The two-hour course counts as one of five specialty certifications required for PADI’s Master Scuba Diver certification.

Scientists estimate that global warming may well kill off the world’s remaining coral reefs within the next 50 years. These dire predictions have ignited a spark among marine activists and scientists to try to save the world’s remaining reefs. But without help from the divers and snorkelers who recreate in the waters surrounding coral systems, this tough job will only be harder.

CONTACTS: UNEP coral reefs; Project AWARE; Reef Relief.

Dear EarthTalk: Are there any toothbrushes that are recyclable?

—Emily Sacchetti, Ellicott City, MD

Small as they are, tossed toothbrushes certainly do create a lot of waste. Indeed, some 50 million pounds of them are tossed into America’s landfills each year. If we followed our dentist’s recommendations and replaced our toothbrushes every three months, we’d be throwing even more of them away.

Fortunately there are some greener-friendly alternatives, most available at natural food retailers or, if not, online at the companies" websites:

The handle of a Recycline Preserve toothbrush, designed by dentists, is made out of polypropylene plastic that has been recycled from used Stonyfield Yogurt cups. And when a Preserve toothbrush reaches the end of its effective life, consumers can either put it out on the curb in the blue bin with other recyclables (if your community offers #5 plastics recycling), or send it back to Recycline in a postage-paid envelope supplied to you with your purchase. It will then likely be reborn again as raw material for a picnic table, deck, boardwalk or other durable long-lasting product.

Another wise eco-choice is the Terradent line of toothbrushes from Eco-Dent. These innovative toothbrushes have replaceable heads, so that once the bristles have worn out, consumers can retain the toothbrush handle and just snap on a new head, thus minimizing waste.

Meanwhile, Radius offers stylish recyclable toothbrushes that are made not from plastic at all but from naturally occurring cellulose derived from sustainable yield forests. Beyond its standard toothbrush line, the company also sells a battery-powered electric "Intelligent Toothbrush" that uses replaceable heads to reduce environmental impact. And the company will take back the handle for recycling once the battery has worn out, usually after about 18 months.

For those stuck on their favorite mass-market toothbrush brands, the online retail website Toothbrush Express offers a toothbrush recycling program similar to Recycline"s. Consumers can sign up to receive new toothbrushes from Toothbrush Express at predefined intervals ranging from monthly to semi-annually. And for only a few dollars extra, the company will include a postage-paid mailer inside each shipment for consumers to use to send their old toothbrushes back for recycling.

Don’t want to bother sending your toothbrushes back? HGTV’s crafts guru Carol Duvall recommends making kids" bracelets out of old toothbrushes instead of sending them to the landfill. After about a minute in boiling water, a toothbrush with its bristles removed can be re-shaped accordingly by wrapping it around a small jar and then allowing it to cool. Full instructions are available on the HGTV website.

CONTACTS: Recycline; Eco-Dent; Radius; Toothbrush Express; HGTV.