First, I have to admit I’ve got a soft spot for a sponge, which are animals, after all. I would much rather see a live sponge on a coral reef than its dead skeleton in a bathroom. Turning these puffy primitive invertebrates into glorified washcloths—when so many greener alternatives exist—makes me sad, not only for the sponges’ sake, but for the health of ocean ecosystems and human beings, as well.
Sponges are found as far north as Alaska as well as in the South Seas; they grow on coral reefs and in the oceanic deeps. They provide biomass, structural habitat, water filtration, and shelter for numerous species, reports Ocean Health Index, a collaborative research project including 65 scientists, Conservation International, and the New England Aquarium.
Sponges are an important food source for sea stars, turtles, and some fish. When sponges and their “intricate architecture” are removed, it hurts these ecosystems. Australian sponge gardens, specifically, have been designated as biodiversity hotspots.
Human health benefits
Medicines derived from sponges have proved invaluable; research shows that natural chemicals in sponges kill cancer cells. For example, Ara-C, a drug used to treat leukemia and lymphoma, is taken from a Caribbean sea sponge.
Sponges under stress
According to the Ocean Health Index “overfishing has depleted populations of soft sponges…” by ocean acidification due to climate change, making them more susceptible to disease. Sponges are also destroyed as a result of trawling the sea floor for scallops and other bottom-dwelling fish.
Although sponges lack nervous and digestive systems, it nevertheless seems cruel to cut them off their ocean beds or tear them loose with a hook. Both methods, however, leave fragments of living sponge behind, and much is made of this.
The sponge industry claims that sea sponges are renewable because, even after the bulk of the organism has been cut off, the remaining cells can regenerate, growing into a new sponge. About 71 percent of cut sponges eventually grow back, compared with only 30 percent of hooked sponges.
Ask where it comes from
There is, as yet, no third-party certification system for assuring that sponges were harvested more sustainably. Those looking for a more sustainably harvested sponge would to well to choose one from Florida, where divers are required to cut sponges and leave a base at least one inch thick to encourage regeneration rather than hook or tear them free. Size is also regulated. Natural Bath and Body Shop sells Florida sea sponges as well as puffy, spongelike natural loofah pads.
Natural loofahs mostly come from the loofah plant, a renewable and sustainable choice. They are a bit harsh, so good for scrubbing away calluses or massaging sore muscles. They can also be made from jute or sisal.
A plastic loofah can be sustainable if it is made from recycled materials. Products made from virgin plastic are, of course, made from nonrenewable fossil fuels.
Recycled and organic materials
I recommend an organic bath pouf, made of 70 percent organic bamboo and 30 percent organic cotton and shaped like an ivory rose, from Bamboobino.
Also irresistibly sustainable is the Coyuchi organic cotton bath mitt.
Natural Value kitchen/bath sponges made from 50 percent PCR materials are sold by Ecobiz.com. Check out the flat ones that expand when placed in water--perfect for the bath.
While designed for kitchen use, the half-cellulose (made, like rayon, from wood fiber) and half-loofah, two-sided sponges would probably also be great for bathing. Available from Full Circle and Twist.
Knitted and crocheted, undyed certified organic hemp wash cloths and bath mitts are sold by Rawganique.
West Elm sells affordable, textured organic cotton washcloths.
So why not try any of these and spare the sponge!