Plastic tubes wash up on Cape Cod beaches, likely from Boston

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When a seasoned beach clean-up expert noticed a bloom of yellow plastic tubing along the strands of the Outer Cape, she started asking questions.

“I had never seen it before,” said Laura Ludwig, program manager for marine debris and plastics at the Center for Coastal Studies. “Where did that come from?”

Thus began a journey to unravel the stringy mystery. Ludwig first encountered the tube in September 2021 at Long Point in Provincetown during a beach cleanup. In the days that followed, more of the plastic was picked up from city beaches in the Outer Cape.

“It was mind-blowing to see how much stuff there was,” she said in a recent phone interview.

The yellow tube has a thin rope appearance and continues to beach Cape Cod beaches in varying lengths, from very short (1 millimeter) to 90 feet. Ludwig said he was found on beaches in Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet, Orleans, Brewster and Yarmouth. It has also been found on the beaches of Hull, Scituate and beyond.

“I found a piece in Newport, Rhode Island last week,” Ludwig said.

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So far, Ludwig’s beach cleanups and other volunteer efforts have ripped more than 2,000 feet of tubing from Cape Town beaches.

Picking up beach debris is not an easy task, but determining where it came from can also be a difficult task. Due to its sudden appearance, Ludwig thought the hit should be tied to a new situation, perhaps a recent project or an unusual event. She reached out to beach debris colleagues, asking for help with the mystery.

One of these colleagues posted a photo of the tube on Facebook.

According to Ludwig, someone from the UK said it looked like the material used to blast rocks in quarries.

This explosive theory led Ludwig to contact the US Army Corps of Engineers, to see if similar tubes had been used in projects in the area.

The answer, according to Ludwig, was “yes”.

A length of explosive shock tube next to a Sharpie pen gives an idea of ​​its thickness.

The tubes on the beaches were from a Boston Harbor dredging project that began in June 2021 and ended in January 2022.

Known as an explosive shock tube, the yellow plastic strand is used to transmit a signal to explosives. In this case, the explosives were underwater, placed to shatter rocks as the harbor channel deepened.

According to Ludwig, the contractor involved in the project had a containment strategy, with ships on the surface picking up the tube as it floated to the surface, but some escaped, likely mixed in with rock debris.

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Ludwig said the US Army Corps of Engineers and the contractor are looking at ways to improve containment for future projects. To deal with the current situation, Ludwig is organizing a beach cleanup along the Boston Harbor shoreline in conjunction with the Corps and the contractor.

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The US Army Corps of Engineers did not immediately respond to a phone message and email seeking comment on the debris.

According to a press release from the Center for Coastal Studies, “The shock tube is made of low-density polyethylene (the same plastic used to make grocery bags) and is considered safe for humans to touch. But many parts are small enough for birds or other animals to eat and may create health problems if swallowed.”

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Cape Cod beachcombers may recall a somewhat similar situation in 2011, when a New Hampshire sewage treatment plant accidentally released millions of small plastic discs, many of which ended up on area beaches. Ludwig said she still finds these discs along Cape Town beaches.

Ludwig is working with oceanographers from the Center for Coastal Studies and NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole on drift patterns that can help predict where the tube will come ashore. She also asks for help from people who find the tube on the beach.

Reports of shock tube location and length can be emailed to Ludwig at [email protected]

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Over the years, Ludwig has become more concerned about the amount of plastic in our local waters and on the beaches.

“These are things that never go away,” she said. “There are plastic lobster trap labels from the 1990s.”

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