Q. I'm trying to green my bath and beauty routine, and I'm wondering about natural sea sponges. They seem to be more eco-friendly than plastic shower poufs, but they come from live animals and I'd hate to contribute to the depletion of ocean species. Is it green to use a sea sponge? – Marianna, MT
A. A little background: Sea sponges are some of the oldest and simplest multi-celled organisms on the planet. They live in almost every aquatic environment, filtering nutrients from the water through their pores. Humans have been bathing with their spongy skeletons for thousands of years.
According to an article from the University of Florida, there are two methods for harvesting sea sponges: fishermen either dive for them, cutting them from the sea floor with knives, or they spot sponges from the surface of the water and tear them loose with long hooks. If enough of the sponge is left behind, it will regenerate itself. Cutting sponges increases the chance of survival, but the U of F estimates that even hooked sponges will grow back about a third of the time.
So the sea sponge’s regenerative properties make it an ideal candidate for sustainable harvesting or even farming. Unfortunately, although some personal care companies do tout their bath sponges as being “sustainable,” there’s no third party certification in place as of yet to verify their claims. That said, we don’t seem to be in danger of over-harvesting: Synthetic sponges still dominate the market, and Florida, the nation’s largest supplier of sea sponges, currently produces about 60,000 pounds of sponges per year. That’s a mere tenth of what the state was producing before World War II. Truth be told, global warming is probably a much greater threat to the humble sponge than are beauty companies.
It’s worth mentioning, also, that the process of turning a live sea sponge into a beauty product produces very little waste, and requires no chemicals. Sea sponges are biodegradable, to boot, not-endangered, and lack a nervous system with which to feel pain.
So we say go for it. Just don’t tell your kids their new scrubbie used to be Spongebob, or you’ll never get them in the tub again.
Finally, a bit of trivia, to wrap things up: Many sea sponge farms, like this one in New Zealand, cultivate sponges for medical research. Natural chemicals in these critters have been shown to kill cancer cells—arguably a greater feat than skin exfoliation, and reason number 147 for us all to work to preserve our planet’s precious biodiversity.
Story by Rachel Brown. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in December 2008.