My mother, Patty Goffinet, has always been a field biologist. In her highly unsupervised childhood in the wild west town of Fort Pierce, Florida, she spent a lot of time trudging around in the lagoon, picking up hermit crabs and sea squirts and studying them carefully. Their environment — the harsh, flat, marshland landscape of Florida, where the local Indians, just forty years earlier, had to make due on less than 1,000 calories a day — was also her environment.
So while she could have been inside, watching the Lawrence Welk Show, or learning how to set a table with five different kinds of forks from my very 50’s-era-housewife grandmother, she was outside, observing a still relatively pristine natural world.
Real-estate in Florida operates in cycles of booms and busts, each successive boom bringing more and more people to the state. The first boom happened in the 1920s. Two horrific hurricanes (in 1926 and in 1928), each one drowning hundreds of people, brought on the first bust. The latest boom ended less than ten years ago, so that land that I remember as cow pasture, I’m surprised to find when I drive out west of town, is now rows and rows of subdivision houses. By the time my mother graduated college, in 1982, Florida’s population had doubled, from 5 million in 1960, to 10 million in 1980. Now, Florida is not a landscape that one lives well in without some serious adjustments to the natural world. Air conditioning tames the heat, canals control flooding, and major doses of fertilizer and pesticides grow approximations of northern lawns. By 1982, the natural world in Florida needed some help. This is when my mother’s professional career, with her newly-got double major in biology and environmental science, begins. She manages the Indian River Lagoon. She has an office, to examine dock-building permits in, and a boat, to check seagrass distribution with. Every two weeks, she goes out on a small plane and flies in these nauseating circles to figure out manatee migration patterns. She also has no boss, and that is a very good thing.
Fast-forward ten years, and Florida’s population has jumped by another 3 million people. My mother has been living in Maryland, but, as a partisan Floridian, she moves back, now with a graduate degree in marine estuarine environmental science, a husband, and a child (me). Florida’s environmental problems have grown. The thunderstorms, which in her childhood, fed by the evapotranspiration of cattails and cypress trees across the state, came every afternoon at 3 o’clock, are much more irregular. Cement, barren water retention ponds, and lawns don’t put back as much water into the atmosphere as the native wetland plants, and things have heated up because of it. Algae blooms from water runoff full of fertilizer plagues the Indian River Lagoon. The bureaucracy surrounding the management of Florida’s natural world has likewise grown, so when my mother begins work at the St Johns Water Management District she has not one, but two bosses. Unfortunately, as is often the case in bureaucracies, office dynamics are kafkaesque. The bosses hate each other, but for a short while, they join forces to make my mother’s life miserable.
Both of the bosses prided themselves in knowing the environmental statutes verbatim. In any issue they faced, they would say “Well, FS8643BXYZ states yadda yadda yadda,” without understanding or caring to understand the reasons behind the statutes. My mother, returning to the office from the field, would often give the long-suffering secretary bouquets of wildflowers, and the bosses would snap, “Patty, it’s illegal to take anything out of government-owned land.” Once, a government agency wanted to dredge underneath the relief bridges over the lagoon because they had silted up. Relief bridges are there to increase water flow. The water in the lagoon needs to move around. One boss tried to make it as hard as possible for this agency. “If there is one blade of seagrass under those bridges there is no way they are going to get a permit!” she would say. Meanwhile time goes by, taxpayer money is being spent, and the Indian River Lagoon suffers. And then, because I’m in the hospital with a high fever, an experience which I rather enjoyed, and my mother is with me, she is fired. She vows to herself that she will never work for a bureaucracy again. As a field biologist, this really limits her options.
So, in the next twenty years, my mother does a lot of things. She takes care of her three children, and then her aging mother. She applies for grants, and organizes the planting of native plants in public land. She gets the city of Melbourne, Florida, to stop trimming its cabbage palms, a boon to native bird species. She teaches, and she writes a book. She turns her 1920s house into, basically, a compound, and rents out various units on AirBandB, very soon earning the status of “Superstar Hostess.” In all of those years, though, she does not work as a field biologist, because she will not work for another bureaucracy.
But, every once in awhile, a private research organization gets a grant. Sea Education Association (formerly Sea Semester, not to be confused with the cruise ship, Semester at Sea), one such organization, got one such grant. And my mother, because she was an alumna, lived the field biologist high life for six weeks, replete with a National Geographic photographer and Patagonia goody bag, on a tall ship in the Pacific Ocean. There, she studied the great garbage patch, or, the problem of plastic in the ocean. And out of this research cruise in 2012, the continuation of her work as a biologist sans bureaucracy — the environmental nonprofit BlueTube — was born.
For most of her professional career as a field biologist, my mother worked with Florida problems. Plastic in the ocean is a global problem. The oceans are global commons, and plastic, not so much from developed countries like ours, anymore, but from developing countries without the infrastructure to deal with plastic waste, gets swept up from beaches into ocean currents and carried out to mid-ocean gyres where it stays there for a long, long time. These are the great garbage patches. You may be picturing floating bottles and plastic bags, heaped up as in a landfill. No, the great garbage patches do not look like that. In fact, they look pretty much like normal ocean. The only sign that they are garbage patches is that mixed in with the zooplankton are little sand-sized specks of plastic.
Most things break down when exposed to water, and plastic is no exception. But while organic compounds break down fully, and in that way return to the earth and get made into new things, plastic, while it gets smaller and smaller, does not break down fully. Instead, it attracts hydrophobic toxins, and fills up the bellies of fauna that eat zooplankton, where it may very well do (more research needed) quite a bit of harm. Unfortunately, no team of nations or environmental organization, however well-funded, will be able to scoop the plastic out, because if you scoop you out the plastic, you scoop out the zooplankton too, thus draining the ocean of life. There is, however, a short window of opportunity to take not-fully-broken-down plastic out of the ocean, when it washes ashore onto the beach.
For a long time, one of my mother’s favorite hobbies has been picking up trash. After the plastics cruise, she concentrated these efforts to picking up plastic trash (most of it washed ashore from developing countries in South and Central America) on the beach. One day, while dropping weathered chunks of plastic into a trash barrel at the beach, she saw a plastic bag filled with flotsam. In that moment, two ideas, simultaneously, flashed before her. One, that you can get a lot more trash off the beach with a bag to put it in. Two, that a lot more people could get a whole lot more trash off the beach if they were given bags, and a gentle reminder to pick up trash. Then, just a moment later, a third spark of inspiration hit her: if people donated their clean, used plastic bags, the endeavor would be self-sustaining and maintenance-free. My mother envisioned something very different from organized beach cleanups. Beach clean-ups operate in short bursts, taking a lot of plastic off the beach one day, and then letting plastic lie for the next 30 days. Her solution involved keeping used plastic-bags at the beach, so that anyone who just happened to come to the beach, could also pick up plastic, thus chipping away slowly but constantly at the ocean plastic problem.
So, with seed money from a defunct environmental non-profit, my mother set out to make this dream a reality. First, she talked to a lot of people and gathered ideas. She gathered a team for the skills that she did not have — graphic design, social media, and accounting. Then, she created a few prototypes of the plastic-bag-holding tubes, and observed them in use. She tweaked the prototypes until they looked professional enough to be a branded product, and then set about creating the brand — BlueTube. She figured out a way to make BlueTube profitable — by having local businesses sponsor the tubes — because one can only volunteer for so long. Today, the brightly-colored blue tubes are at 50 beaches in Brevard County, Florida, and are spreading to the rest of the state. All in all, this has taken about a year and a half.
There’s still a lot of work to be done. Most pressingly, BlueTube needs partner-organizations to bring the product to new areas. My mother is hard at work most days, giving talks on the ocean plastic problem, selling sponsorships, cultivating relationships with other environmental groups, and quantifying the effects of the tubes on the beaches that have them. She has returned to field biology on her own terms, and I’m very proud of her.