The Tale of the Glitter Inner Tube
Meant for the pool, plastic glitter tubes can break easily, polluting waterways and jeopardizing the health of manatees and other wildlife
By Gina McClain, Volunteer Specialist
Picture this: I am on duty as a manatee observer at Blue Spring State Park (BSSP) and involved with training a new observer. Imagine our surprise and horror as we walk onto the swim deck and see that the water is full of plastic “confetti” pieces.
This was my introduction to the popular and now-dreaded glitter inner tubes. I was unaware of these tubes, yet there one was in living color, with all its contents floating in the water.
Just as they are advertised, these inner tubes are meant for calm swimming pools, as they are super thin and cheap to buy at less than $5. They are filled with the same thin, cheap plastic pieces of assorted sizes and colors and are referred to as glitter tubes. When this tube was introduced into nature at BSSP, it could not support the swimmer’s weight against the strong spring current, so it burst. And thousands of pieces of very thin plastic were introduced into our beautiful spring.
From then on, it became a race against time and the current, trying to scoop out the plastic before it passed under the buoy line and dispersed throughout the spring run. We did our best with a large mesh skimmer on a long pole supplied by the park. Swimmers in the spring tried to help us; it is just very difficult to grab these tiny circles out of the water. After more than an hour of us scooping the flimsy pieces out of the water, we could see the glitter was already in the manatee refuge and trapped in floating algae and vegetation. We watched as fish and turtles attempted to eat the pieces. Thankfully, no manatees were in at that moment, but we know manatees come into the spring daily. The plastic pieces flowed right out into the St. Johns River and are now in that water and caught in the vegetation that feeds many animals and will be consumed by manatees, turtles, birds, fish, and potentially people that fish in the river.
While I already knew I was super fortunate to be on an amazing team at Save the Manatee Club (SMC), what happened next was terrific! But first… a little bit about manatees and trash.
Manatees already encounter too much litter mixed in with the vegetation they eat, and any level of plastic consumption can cause illness and even mortality in our precious sea cows. As manatees cannot pick items out of their food, they unknowingly consume trash that is tangled within it: anything from fishing line and hooks, plastic bottle caps, Band-Aids, microplastics from toys, ropes, string, straws from juice boxes, hair ties, and now plastic glitter pieces. This indigestible trash can fill the manatee’s stomach or intestines over time, which may cause them to get sick, stop eating, and potentially die. As a sad example, Mr. Baby—the calf of SMC adoptee Una—was still a juvenile when he had to be rescued after showing signs of distress. He passed away two months later, and a necropsy revealed he had ingested various types of man-made debris.
One of my manatee observer duties while in the kayak is to go through the vegetation and pull out the trash. You would not believe the things I find and remove, certainly all the things I listed above and then also larger items: diapers, ball caps, car keys, plastic and glass bottles, aqua shoes, snorkels, sunscreen, plastic toys, etc. (Note: if you are a Florida resident of Volusia, Orange, Lake, or Seminole Counties, you too can become a Manatee Observer! Visit our volunteer page for more information.)
After the glitter incident, I sent photos and information to my colleagues at SMC. In what felt like no time, they had consulted with park officials, started a social media campaign, and put out a press release to get the word out about stopping these dangerous tubes from coming into our park and into any natural water setting. I watched in amazement as, on that same day, media outlets picked up the story, and it appeared on multiple news broadcasts and in the newspaper. The reaction on social media was thrilling, with it being reposted thousands of times across all platforms!
The impressive result: BSSP has now banned these glitter inner tubes from being brought in, and many other state and local parks are following suit. Many supporters of SMC have taken up the cause and started their own social media efforts to spread the word about the negative impact on nature that the glitter inner tubes represent. It is so amazing and gratifying that, from just one volunteer witnessing this, there is now a movement to stop these tubes from hurting our natural springs and rivers and the animals that call them home.
Here are some tips to help protect manatees and other wildlife:
- Recycle your trash or throw it away in a proper trash container.
- Recycle used fishing line. Bins can be found at many marinas, boat ramps, fishing piers, and bait and tackle shops. Find bin locations in Florida. You can also learn how to make your own recycling bin.
- Make your own mini-bin out of a tennis ball or other container to keep used line on board your vessel.
- Report sick, injured, or entangled manatees to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-888-404-3922. Please do not try to cut the entanglement off yourself. For information on reporting manatees outside of Florida, visit savethemanatee.org/rescue.
- Learn more about manatees and entanglement by watching our short video.