PSU student's aquarium exhibit dives into the ocean plastics problem
Author: Cristina Rojas, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Posted: June 19, 2019

From plastic bags and straws to synthetic clothing fibers and microbeads in face and body scrubs, about 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the world's oceans each year. A PSU graduate student hopes a new exhibit she helped design for the Oregon Coast Aquarium makes visitors realize just how much plastic gets into the ocean — and encourages them to act.

 Britta Baechler, a doctoral student in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' Earth, Environment and Society program, has been researching the presence of microplastics in Pacific oysters and razor clams. 

Microplastics are pieces of plastic less than five millimeters long — roughly the size of a grain of rice — that fish and other marine animals often mistake for food. Baechler found plastic fibers, likely from ropes, clothing and packaging, in both species along the Oregon coast, but she says it's still unclear what that means for the health of the organisms themselves or the people who eat them. 

Baechler's research was funded by an Oregon Sea Grant, and as part of her work, funds were set aside for creating an educational exhibit at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon.

"I think people are generally aware of the plastic problem, but the exhibit provides a closer look at how these items enter the environment, their prevalence in marine organisms and the ways we can each chip away at the growing issue," she said. 

Baechler and colleagues have a forthcoming scientific paper detailing her findings, but said that it's just as important to share her research with the general public.

"The status quo is for scientists to publish papers detailing research results, but then the knowledge may only stay in the scientific community," she said. "Being able to push information like this out to the public so we can reflect on how our daily activities are impacting the environment is important. We need to make sure that kids understand and get behind the issue too because they are our future stewards."

The exhibit features four informational panels and three hands-on stations that allow visitors to explore both the problem and solutions. One of the panels suggests simple ways to reduce the problem, such as refusing single-use plastics, using plastic alternatives, repurposing or buying second-hand items, recycling, volunteering for river and coastal cleanups, and contacting local representatives about implementing change.

A marine plastic solutions desk shows some alternatives: a reusable coffee mug instead of a to-go cup and lid, a tote bag instead of a plastic bag, a beeswax wrap instead of plastic wrap, a silicone snack bag instead of a plastic baggie. 

Baechler said the feedback has been good so far. She plans on doing a more formal assessment later this summer and fall to get a better sense of how long visitors spend at the exhibit, how they interact with it, and what they take away from it.

"Assessing the exhibit’s impact on aquarium visitors will allow us to make better informational displays in the future and improve science communication around marine debris and marine plastics," she said. "Having concrete evidence of what people are learning and what else they would like to learn around this issue will help shape future outreach priorities."

Baechler's exhibit collaborators included her advisor Elise Granek, a professor of Environmental Science and Management; Tina Smith and Kerry Carlin-Morgan of the Oregon Coast Aquarium; and PSU undergraduate student volunteers Nini Bui, Hanna Gentile, Anna Young, Ashley Peterson, Shannon Castor and Lynette Slape, who created art and helped with exhibit planning.