“It is our job to take care of the coast, to be on the forefront of this issue, and set an example for other states in how we are putting the resources we have towards addressing the issue of plastic pollution in the ocean.”
As a graduate student at Portland State University conducting research on microplastics in razor clams and Pacific oysters on the Oregon Coast, Britta Baechler developed an interest in marine life and plastic pollution from her background in fisheries, ocean studies, biogeography, and marine conservation in several locations around the world. She became concerned about the state of the marine environment after encountering marine debris and trash on beaches in the Caribbean, Aleutian Islands and Northern Mariana Islands. Now, Britta conducts her PhD research in the Applied Coastal Ecology lab at Portland State University under Dr. Elise Granek. “Our lab investigates environmental contaminants, and my specific research focuses on microplastic contaminants in two important Oregon seafood species. My work combines my interests in fisheries and marine debris and allows me to approach the issue from an environmental protection angle.” One of the goals of this research project is to bring plastic awareness to both Oregon coast visitors and residents. Plastic used in everyday life is making its way into the coastal environment and subsequently into marine organisms. There are many types of microplastics, from microfibers that wash off of synthetic materials in our laundry or degrade from ropes and nets, to microfragments which break down from larger plastics, to intentionally-manufactured microbeads in cleansing products, and films broken down from items like plastic bags. Britta touches on the scientific evidence that points to this increasing problem. “There is a growing body of literature showing plastic in a wide variety of species groups that rely on freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems for habitat. This is of concern because studies now indicate microplastics may affect organismal growth, behavior and reproduction.” Plastic pollution is able to travel from highly populated inland areas to the coast due to wind and water transmission. Baechler points out “I think it is so important to educate not only coastal communities, but all communities about the plastic pollution epidemic, because there are many vectors of plastic transmission into the environment which originate from inland areas as well.”
Through her research, Britta also looks at the issue of plastic pollution in seafood from a social science lens. Part of her work involves surveying razor clam harvesters on the Olympic Peninsula and Oregon coasts about how often they harvest and eat them and how heavily they depend on them as part of their diets. These surveys aim to identify if microplastic exposure due to bivalve consumption differs for various populations in the area based on demographics or cultural history.
Britta says that the sad truth is that plastic is now ubiquitous in the environment: in other words, it is found in almost every habitat and ecosystem on the planet. “Based on our past and present plastic use, we have permanently altered the earth. There are microplastics in the air, the food we eat and the fluids we drink. This is a product of not fully realizing the consequences of widespread plastic use until now. We still have a lot to learn about this issue, but what we do know for certain is that it is well past time to address it.” Britta says that the best ways we can reduce our reliance on plastics is to shift our personal habits and put pressure on companies to change plastic packaging and single-use plastic norms. “We need to think about plastic use in our daily lives, the packaging of materials we consume. For example, I go to the store and see lettuce packaged in a large plastic bag containing more single-serve plastic bags inside of that. Is this really necessary? I don’t think those of us that purchase this type of product are bad or lazy, it is just what we are offered as consumers. I really think we can make a big difference by using our buying power to put pressure on companies to change their packaging practices.”
When Oregonians and non-Oregonians alike think about the Oregon Coast, they picture a very beautiful, natural place. Britta says it is critical to maintain that image in real time and in real life. “No one wants to picture our coast with nets and garbage all over it, it is not the place we know and love. It is our job to take care of the coast, to be on the forefront of this issue, and set an example for other states in how we are putting the resources we have towards addressing the issue of plastic pollution in the ocean.”