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5 Small Things You Can Do to Make an Impact on Earth Day

04/22/2015 08:46 EDT | Updated 06/22/2015 05:59 EDT
Shutterstock / TijanaM

We are made aware almost daily of the dire impacts of biodiversity loss and climate change. It can be overwhelming, but the good news is that there are simple things we can do in our daily lives that can make a real difference. And Earth Day is the perfect time to consider taking a couple of small steps.

I've had the good fortune to travel the world with my brother making documentaries about the environment for more than four years, and here are just a few tips that we've picked up, and you can consider adopting them too. And feel free to share them with family and friends!

1) Use a Sustainable Seafood Smartphone App or Pocket Guide - Consumers are often unaware of how their fish or seafood was caught or farmed and whether or not it is from a sustainable or unsustainable source. Overfishing is a major threat to the health of the ocean and over 85 per cent of global fisheries are now classified as overfished or fully exploited.

Thankfully, you don't have be a marine biologist or seafood expert to make responsible choices. Oceanwise, Seachoice and Seafood Watch are three groups that have handy (and free!) smartphone apps, pocket guides and restaurant certification programs that let you know what types of seafood to avoid and be confident that what you are eating is not contributing to further destruction of fisheries and marine habitats.

Several retailers and restaurants are making changes to respond to the growing demand to know the source of your seafood. Consumers do have power and the more you ask how the seafood was caught and the more you refuse to buy seafood products caught unsustainably (such as trawled and farmed shrimp), the stronger the incentive for restaurants, supermarkets and other retailers to stop selling unsustainable seafood items.

If your waiter or local retailer can't tell you exactly how or where seafood was caught or farmed, let them know you cannot buy it until you do know.

2) Eat Less Meat and Dairy - Globally, animal agriculture is responsible for one third of our freshwater demand, about 15 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions and is a major driver of deforestation, biodiversity loss and water pollution. Meat and dairy products are excellent sources of protein, high value commodities and are essential parts of the human diet, but we don't need them in every single meal, especially beef.

Meat and dairy consumption is expected to double between 2000 and 2050 and is rising rapidly in the developing world as prosperity grows. Experts say that eating less meat and dairy products is also good for your health and can help reduce incidences of cardiovascular disease and some forms of cancer. If you cut out just 10 quarter-pound beef burgers from your diet, you will save the equivalent amount of water as all the showers you have had in a year combined! Switching just a few meat-based meals to plant based ones each week can be healthier for you and the planet.

3) Avoid Uncertified Palm Oil Products - This is very important but can be a tougher tip to follow because palm oil (a vegetable oil made from the fruit of palm trees) is in so much of what we buy nowadays, it can be very difficult to determine if something even contains palm oil, let alone if that oil was sourced from the illegal destruction of tropical rainforest. There are a couple agencies such as the RSPO and Rainforest Alliance that certify and label palm oil as sustainable, but the supply chain for palm oil is so vast and complicated, it is difficult to be 100 per cent certain that what you are buying is truly sustainable.

Palm oil is just so cheap to produce and ubiquitous in our food that there is little hope that boycotting it will be very effective. One option is to check ingredients on products or download this free smartphone app to scan products and find out if they contain palm oil and then decide for yourself whether you really need that product or if there is another alternative. Even though "certified sustainable palm oil" is not a perfect solution, supporting and improving these certification programs may be our only hope for preserving tropical rainforests.

4) Don't Buy Products Containing Plastic Microbeads - Microbeads are those tiny balls of plastic you can find in many exfoliating hand soaps, shampoos, facial cleansers and even toothpastes. Unfortunately, because microbeads are usually less than 1mm in diameter, most wastewater treatment plants can't capture them and they flow straight from your drains into local rivers and lakes. Ever heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Well we have our own garbage patches right in in the Great Lakes where researchers have found even higher concentrations of plastic than in the middle of the ocean. Some companies have already voluntarily begun to phase out microbeads and governments in Canada and the U.S. are finally starting to ban them altogether.

However, these bans won't go into effect for at least two or three more years, so keep an eye out for the ingredients polypropylene and polyethylene on the back of products that you suspect contain microbeads and switch to products that use all-natural exfoliants. And of course, don't forget to bring reusable water bottles, food containers and bags wherever you go because microbeads are just one small part of a much bigger plastic pollution problem!

5) Plan a greener commute - We all lead busy lives and it can be difficult in our modern, fast-paced society to get everything done in a day without a car. However, it isn't impossible to take public transit, carpool or bike to work. Not only can these three options help dramatically reduce your carbon footprint but if you choose to bike it will help you stay fit and save even more money!

Oh, and one more thing -- VOTE! Doing things like replacing every lightbulb in your house with LEDs, driving hybrid and electric cars are great small solutions, but those efforts will become even more effective if every level of government is also committed to protecting the environment, by promoting innovative technologies, conserving wilderness and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

It's no secret that the oil and gas industry and other big polluters can have deep influence on political systems. The most powerful way to have all viewpoints heard is to get out and vote, even get involved. April 22 might be Earth Day but October 19, 2015 could end up being an even more important day for Canada's environment.

Alex Mifflin and brother Tyler Mifflin host the award-winning eco-adventure series, The Water Brothers, exploring the world's most important water stories. The third season airs Tuesdays at 7:00 p.m. from April 7 to May 19 on TVO and at www.thewaterbrothers.ca.

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