Scientists play a crucial role in our understanding of climate change and environmental issues. We turn the spotlight to those on the front lines, to help you understand the work that scientists do and why they are instrumental in helping to build a sustainable future.
Louise Naïma Laing is a marine biologist and co-founder of People4Ocean, a consultancy specialising in coral gardening, reef rescuing and restoring tropical marine ecosystems. She holds a Master’s degree in Marine Sciences from James Cook University and a Bachelor’s degree in Biology from the University of Pierre and Marie Curie (France). Laing is also co-formulator of a range of natural, ocean-friendly sunscreens. In this interview, she shares why plastic pollution still shocks her, how some chemicals in most sunscreens cause harm to coral reefs and marine animals, and she even shares her tips for living a plastic-free life.
EWP: What does your typical day look like?
Louise Naïma Laing: At People4Ocean, our specialty is coral gardening, and that implies diving every day, two to four times a day to collect, nurse or plant corals. So during missions or coral projects, my typical day is very outdoorsy and should I say, soaking wet! As for every scientific project, some days have their share of data collection and reporting, allowing us to estimate conservation achievements and set new targets. So when I am not underwater, you can find me sitting with my laptop, turning piles of scientific data into an easy-to-read story entitled: How did we bring your reef back to life? Over the past few months, we have been dedicating our time on launching our marine conscious Sun System, formulated in collaboration with natural skincare crusaders, LaGaia Unedited, a company founded by my mother-in-law, Dr. Jean Laing. My last dive was several months ago, but this new project has been such an excitement and a challenge!
EWP: Given the work you do as a marine biologist and all that you have seen, experienced and learned in this role, what facts and environmental issues still shock you?
LNG: The first one is plastic. This epidemic disease of our modern society, slowly poisoning our planet and our bodies…in the name of convenience. What shocks me is that – as a society – we consider that extracting petrol, transporting it to a refinery, transforming it into plastic, shaping it into a spoon, transporting it to a store, purchasing it, using it and throwing it away requires less effort than washing a reusable spoon. Plastics are present in almost every aspect of our lives! And recycling, unfortunately, is more like an emergency exit than a solution, especially now that the Australian waste industry has reached crisis point due to the Chinese waste ban.
The second one is intensive animal farming. Although I don’t believe that worldwide veganism is possible, it is undeniable that more and more humans eat unsustainable amounts of meat and animal products. I am convinced that intensive animal agriculture is the leading cause of most environmental ills. Yet, the intentional refusal to discuss the issue among governments and leaders in the environmental movement is shocking to me. As world citizens, we have the opportunity to improve our health and environmental footprint by reducing our consumption of animal products. I work every day at being a sustainable eater, with standards adapted to where I live. In Seychelles, this meant basing my diet on island-grown veggies and – once or twice a week – on local seafood and/ or locally farmed chicken (and eggs). Here in Melbourne, I add organic, locally farmed beef every once and a while, supporting local and responsible farms committed to producing ethical, sustainable and good quality products. My way of eating healthy on a healthy planet comes downs to eating lots of greens and few high-quality animal products, reading labels and learning about the farmers making an honest living in my area.
Related Post: 10 Ways We Can Make The Food System More Sustainable
EWP: Microplastics are a real problem in our oceans. How do they affect coral reefs? What can the average person do to address this problem and improve the health of our oceans?
LNG: The plastic spoon I mentioned earlier – if not recycled or burned – will never really biodegrade but instead break down into pieces of plastics invisible to the naked eye: microplastics. You can also find microplastics (used as microplastics) in cosmetics, cleaning supplies and clothing.
In the ocean, plastics now make up 60 to 80 percent of marine litter. Although corals have the ability to clean themselves from natural or artificial particles, they have a hard time cleaning up microplastics, which affects their health by causing tissue necropsy or bleaching. Further studies have shown that corals can either eat microplastics and either spit them out or keep the particles in individual coral polyps, with consequences on feeding, energy and reproduction.
So what can we do about it? Get away from it! And teach parents, siblings and children to do the same. I recommend integrating the following habits in your everyday-life to dramatically reduce plastic pollution:
- Avoid ordering takeaway, and if you do, bring your own container or choose businesses that sell in paper or cardboard.
- Say NO to the soy sauce plastic fish (and take your sushi in a paper bag, not a plastic tray).
- Say NO to plastic straws and plastic cutlery
- Try a bamboo toothbrush and cotton buds.
- Bring your own reusable coffee cup and drinking bottle, and grocery bags.
- When grocery shopping, choose brands that sell in glass jars for things like tomato sauce, peanut butter or honey.
- When walking the beach, pick up three pieces of plastic #take3forthesea
- In fashion, prefer degradable fabrics (cotton, linen, hemp) to synthetic fabrics [synthetic fibres release microplastics when laundered]
From there, reflect on how much plastic you have kept from landfills and waterways and ask yourself if you want to go further in this Quest (because you will sometimes feel like a lonely crusader on this one!). Take it as a personal challenge; make it a game at home. For every decision you make, there is almost always one away from plastic.
EWP: Which books and documentaries do you recommend people read and watch if they want to learn more about coral reef degradation?
LNG: Coral reefs are among the most vulnerable ecosystems as coral reef degradation is the consequence of an umbrella of environmental problems that, in some cases, interact with one another: land clearing and deforestation, climate change, pollution, agricultural runoffs, Crown of Thorns starfish invasions, overfishing, destructive fishing, and more.
Despite covering less than one percent of the Earth surface, coral reefs are vital to millions of people for coastal protection, food and income. They are in fact colonies of fragile organisms that have evolved to thrive in very specific conditions of water quality, temperature and depth. The same way “all pipes lead to the ocean”…most human impacts [on land or in the ocean] have the potential to impact coral reefs. The 2017 Netflix documentary Chasing Coral is great for understanding the causes, process and extent of coral bleaching globally. The crew continuously photographed several coral reefs on the Great Barrier Reef during the 2016 mass coral-bleaching event. I also recommend reading a recent report by the International Coral Reef Initiative reviewing issues related to sunscreens impacts on coral reefs.'As a society, we consider that extracting petrol, transporting it to a refinery, transforming it into plastic, shaping it into a spoon, transporting it to a store, purchasing it, using it and throwing it away requires less effort than washing a reusable spoon.' - Louise Naima LaingClick To Tweet
EWP: Why did you start a skincare line?
LNG: The coral reef crisis has been a reality for over two decades. As ocean lovers and coral experts, fighting for their survival is our way of life.
Working in Seychelles from 2015, we witnessed healthy coral reefs being wiped out by heat in a matter of weeks during the 2016 El Niño climatic event. In recent years, scientific research brought to our attention the detrimental effects sunscreen ingredients have on corals and personal health. With this came a new threat to the world’s most popular reefs and human health: sunscreen pollution. The fact is, chemical UV-filters are harmful to corals and other aquatic animals at multiple stages of their lifecycle and at minimal concentrations. With 90 percent of sunscreen brands on the market containing these toxic-ingredients and an estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen entering coral reef areas each year, there is growing concern for these ecosystems worldwide.
As it turns out my mother-in-law, Dr. Jean Laing specialises in luxury skincare formulation through her company LaGaia Unedited that she runs with her daughter Kristen. We saw an opportunity to end sunscreen pollution, by combining our knowledge of coral reefs with their expertise of natural skincare formulation.
In 2015, we – mother, daughters and son – set out on a journey to create a global first: a natural sun system loved by marine scientists, luxury skincare users, eco-activists, ocean lovers, resort and spa owners. Through this natural, marine-conscious sun system we aim to turn sun protection – a current driver of coral reef degradation – into a powerful incentive for the protection and rehabilitation of these vital ecosystems worldwide. In Australia, a country where rates of skin cancer and coral bleaching are at a record high, we are committed to addressing these issues hand-in-hand.
EWP: How is it different from what’s already available in the marketplace?
LNG: As a woman, marine biologist, ocean and sun lover, I think there is a noticeable absence of sun care products capable of addressing the collateral damages of sun exposure (e.g. pigmentation, skin-dehydration, pH stress, premature aging) while providing effective sun protection and still ticking the boxes of respect for personal health and Nature. We created P4O sun care with two simple intentions:
- Provide the best, most genuine yet sophisticated sun protection in the world
- End sunscreen pollution and promote reef recovery worldwide
Our SPF30 sunscreen is 100% natural, free of any ingredient proven toxic to coral reefs and ocean life. This product is so genuine and nourishing, it honestly doesn’t feel like applying sunscreen but rather a moisturizer with SPF. A little goes a long way: it provides full coverage with minimum amounts of product.
Our Aftersun 3-in-1 solution is made with organic Aloe Vera, Green Tea Extract and Sodium Hyaluronate. It is also a beautiful, very versatile product; perfect for non-oily moisturising, before and after sun exposure. Our male customers absolutely love it as a moisturiser and they also use it as an aftershave and even to style their hair! For every product sold we give $1 to Great Barrier Reef conservation and rehabilitation projects. So by choosing P4O products, customers minimise impact and participate in restoring vital ecosystems.
Many ask: “Why not an SPF50?” There is a huge misconception about what SPF actually means. The higher the SPF doesn’t mean the higher the protection against UV-rays but rather the length of time the product stays on your skin. When formulating, it became very clear with our chemical engineers and lab team that creating an SPF50 would require the addition of waxes, chemicals and synthetics, in order to maintain product quality and lightweight texture. According to our laboratory, there are no SPF50 sunscreen formulations in Australia that are 100% natural. We made the conscious decision to keep our formula completely natural with an SPF30. Our formulation meets People4Ocean expectations of effective sun and aging control, eco-consciousness and sophistication.
EWP: Are you working on any other cool projects at the moment?
LNG: We are excited to see that more and more are committing to the cause. P4O is now at Elements of Byron Spa and will soon be available at multiple locations along the Great Barrier Reef, New Zealand and Tasmania. Furthermore, we are looking into establishing a potential coral restoration project in Fiji.
P4O will be presenting its experience in coral reef restoration and introducing the Sun System at the upcoming Great Barrier Reef Restoration Symposium in Cairns from May 16th to 19th. Any of your subscribers also attending? We’d love to catch-up!
You can follow Louise Naïma Laing and People4Ocean on Instagram and Facebook. For more information about their coral gardening projects or to make an ocean-friendly sunscreen purchase, visit people4ocean.com.
Responses have been edited for clarity.