Plastic breaks into smaller pieces but it's still there
Plastic breaks into smaller pieces but it’s still there

What happens to garbage when it washes out to sea?

Organic garbage, or garbage that used to be living, like wood, paper and food scraps, is biodegraded. This means that it is broken down by microorganisms like bacteria into compounds that can be used by other organisms. Plastic is different. It is a relatively new, man-made product, and microorganisms have not evolved to eat plastic and turn it into the building blocks of new life. Sunlight causes big pieces of plastic to fragment into lots of little pieces of plastic, but it is still plastic. In the ocean, organic garbage disappears, but plastic remains for a very long time.

Broken bits of plastic as seen from the side of the ship
Broken bits of plastic as seen from the side of the ship

What does the “Garbage Patch” look like?

Here is a picture of the Sailing School Vessel Robert C. Seamans in the North Pacific subtropical gyre, an area sometimes referred to as the “Garbage Patch.” The white specs in the water, barely visible next to the ship, are tiny fragments of plastic. These little plastic pieces may have started out as milk jugs, bottle caps or plastic forks, but now it is impossible to tell what they were. In this photo, plastic has aggregated into a long line. Usually the tiny plastic pieces are spread out over a much larger area, and the plastic is not visible from the ship’s deck. 

Neuston Net
Neuston Net

 How do scientists collect plastic in the ocean?

Floating plastic is collected at the air-sea interface (the “neuston layer”) with a fine-meshed plankton net that is towed alongside the ship. The contents of the net are examined and each tiny plastic fragment is removed with tweezers and counted. 

Zooplankton and plastic
Zooplankton and plastic

 Why can’t all this plastic be removed with nets?

There are a couple reasons why this will not work…

  1. The ocean is way too large.
  2. We would also be catching and removing a lot of plankton, small plants and animals, that all the other animals in the sea depend on for food. No plankton means no tuna fish sandwiches.

Is the middle of the ocean full of water bottles?

No. Plastic can be divided into floaters and sinkers. Water bottles are made of PET (recycling code #1, polyethylene terephthalate) which sinks because it is denser than sea water. Water bottles sink to the bottom near shore unless their caps are on and they hold air. Eventually plastic bottles break apart, and then they sink. Below are the types of plastic that float. These are they plastics that travel the ocean’s surface.

Floating Plastic

#2 HDPE (high density polyethylene) – milk jugs, detergent bottles, grocery bags

#4 LDPE (low density polyethylene) – garbage and sandwich bags, plastic wrap, 6-pack holders

#5 PP (polypropylene) – yogurt and margarine tubs, screw on caps, lids, straws, plastic forks, rope

#6 PS (polystyrene) – floats when expanded into egg cartons, packing pellets, take-out containers, styrofoam cups

Here is a list of plastics that sink. They cause problems in near shore sediments.

Sinking Plastic

#1 PET (polyethylene terephthalate) – bottles for water, soda and juice, some take-out and produce containers

#3 Vinyl (polyvinyl chloride) – plastic pipes, fencing, shower curtains

#6 PS (polystyrene) sinks when it is not expanded, plastic cups, some plastic utensils

The last category of plastic is #7, everything else. Some of it floats, some sinks. This plastic is difficult to recycle because it is composed of a variety of different materials.

Plastic breaks into smaller pieces but it's still there
Plastic breaks into smaller pieces but it’s still there

Why does the plastic I’ve picked up on the beach look old and weathered?

Because it is. Plastic becomes faded and brittle when it is exposed to the sun. It may have been floating out at sea for awhile before it washed up. But you picked it up and threw it in the garbage – good job! You have made the beach a nicer place and prevented that plastic from ending up in the ocean again.

Ocean gyres
Ocean gyres

 What is a gyre and why are they full of plastic?

Gyres are large, circular ocean currents created by wind and the earth’s rotation. There are gyres in the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific and Indian Oceans. These surface currents carry floating materials, like plastic, into their center. They form an oceanographic “dead-end,” where plastic accumulates and cannot easily escape. Natural debris breaks down but plastic debris fragments into smaller and smaller pieces.

Are there laws against dumping trash at sea?

There are now. But before the 1972 London Convention, a United Nations agreement to control ocean dumping, the oceans were used a handy place to get rid of waste. Ocean dumping laws became more restrictive with MARPOL (as in marine pollution) in 1988 and the London Protocol of 1996.  

Why is plastic in the ocean a problem? 

Marine animals can get tangled up in plastic. Many animals from tiny zooplankton to seabirds, fish and sea turtles eat plastic. In some cases this causes death, in others it doesn’t. Toxins adhere to plastic and can be transferred to animals when eaten. Plastic floating in the ocean transports plants and animals to other parts of the globe where they can become invasive. We do know that an enormous amount of plastic is accumulating in the ocean, but there is still much to learn about the effects of this plastic on the environment. Right now scientists have many more questions than answers.

Where is the plastic washing up on our beaches coming from?

Some plastic comes from ships at sea, but most of it is land based. It washes in from the shore, it is swept down rivers and it blows into the ocean from land. Much of the plastic in the ocean comes from less developed countries that don’t have garbage collection, recycling or adequate landfills. These countries have plenty of plastic coming in, but without good ways to manage waste, much of it eventually washes out to sea. This plastic may float into an ocean gyre and stay awhile, or it may wash up on a beach.

Why should my business sponsor BlueTubes?

Your BlueTube sponsorship will result in clean beaches, cleaner oceans and help fund scientific research on ocean plastic. Sponsoring a BlueTube is also a great way to grab the attention of beach-goers. Your business logo goes on each BlueTube you sponsor, and your business is mentioned on this website.

How can I sponsor a BlueTube?

One BlueTube can be sponsored for one year for $125. When four BlueTubes are sponsored, the fifth one is free. Call (321 698-2490) or email (info@BlueTubeBeach.org). We will help you find a beach in need of a great sponsor!

Can I sponsor a BlueTube anywhere? 

We need to get permission before we can install BlueTubes. Contact us (321 698-2490, info@BlueTubeBeach.org) We may already have permission. If we don’t have permission, let’s get it! Tell the jurisdiction responsible for the beach about BlueTubes and pass on our website. We can help. 

My town wants BlueTubes at their beach crossovers. What’s next?

The BlueTubes will need sponsors. All sorts of beach lovers and businesses sponsor BlueTube. Talk to potential sponsors about BlueTubes, and pass on our website. We can help. Contact us.

How should I send my business logo so it can be put on the tubes I am sponsoring?

Your logo should be 3″ x 3″ with a minimum of 300 dpi.  Please email your artwork as a jpg or png to info@BlueTubeBeach.org.

My condominium association would like to get a BlueTube for our beach crossover. Is this possible?

It sure is. We need permission from the condominium association to put up a BlueTube, and we will need a sponsor. Contact us. We can help.

I am a high school student and need community service hours. Can I earn hours by adopting BlueTubes and keeping them filled with bags?

You bet! We love our volunteers! Contact us for more information.

I am working towards becoming an Eagle Scout. For my Eagle Scout project I would like to bring BlueTubes to my town’s beaches. What do you think?

Terrific idea! You will need to get permission from your town and find businesses to sponsor the BlueTubes. We can help. Contact us.

I would like to donate bags to the BlueTube at my beach but bring reusable bags to the grocery store.

Good job! You can still donate bags though. Apple bags, potato bags, rice bags, neighbor’s bags will all work as long as they are clean.

Will raccoons pull plastic bags out of the BlueTube and add to the garbage problem?

No. As long as the bags do not have food in them, raccoons will leave them alone..

Will the wind blow plastic bags out of the BlueTube and add to the garbage problem?

BlueTubes were observed under head-on, high wind conditions. All bags stayed inside tubes. BlueTubes were tested in the Hurricane Chamber at the Orlando Science Center. All bags stayed snug inside. BlueTubes were tested during Hurricane Matthew in October, 2016. Our volunteers reported that bags stayed inside the BlueTubes. They were there to help in the cleanup efforts too!

I pick up trash. What else can I do to help?

Do you know of a business that might be interested in sponsoring BlueTubes? Tell them about BlueTubes or contact us. Do you know of a town that would benefit from BlueTubes at their beaches? Tell them about BlueTubes or contact us. 

It’s also important to think about the plastic we use. Will it last long after its useful life is over? Do we really need it? Is there a better alternative? Can the plastic we use be reduced? Reused? Recycled? Please reuse your clean dry plastic bags by donating them to BlueTubes.

Funding Sea Education Association Research
Funding Sea Education Association Research

How do BlueTubes fund research on ocean plastic pollution?

A portion of the proceeds from each BlueTube sponsorship goes to the Sea Education Association to support their research on plastic in the oceans. SEA has been sampling the ocean for plastic since 1986. SEA students and scientists have towed thousands of nets along the ocean surface in the Atlantic, Pacific and Caribbean Sea from one of their two research ships (SSV Robert C. Seamans  on left). Each piece of plastic debris from these tows is counted and preserved, and this data is used for further research. SEA scientists do research and publish on a variety of plastic related topics including microbial communities on plastic, the effects of wind on vertical distribution of plastic in the ocean, plastic accumulation in the oceans and the source of ocean plastic.