A passion for saving aquatic lives whose livelihoods are more and more threatened by anthropogenic plastics

Female Student with ocean in the background
Elizabeth Linske, a second-year student in the Georgetown University Masters of Science Environmental Metrology and Policy (EMAP)

Elizabeth Linske, a second-year student in the Georgetown University Masters of Science Environmental Metrology and Policy (EMAP) Program, has co-authored an important report on plastics pollution, Choked, Strangled, Drowned: The Plastics Crisis Unfolding In Our Oceans, along with colleagues at the advocacy group Oceana. The report is expected to be impactful as it helps raise further the awareness of detrimental effects of the ever-worsening plastic pollution by providing critical data on the incidence of plastic ingestion by or entanglement of sea mammals and turtles in U.S. waters.

“Scientists estimate about 15 million tons of plastic enter the ocean every year,” Linske wrote in a recent blog post about the Oceana report. “Each item within that 15 million tons of plastic entering our oceans every year has the potential to do harm to one individual animal. As this report lays out, the 1,800 animals we found that had been impacted by plastic provide only a small snapshot of the issue. The number of animals being affected by plastic is much larger and will only grow if nothing is done to mitigate plastic production and use.” Of the animals found to be injured by ocean plastics, 88% were of species listed in the Endangered Species Act as endangered or threatened.

Prior to Linske’s matriculation at Georgetown, she worked as a marine biologist in Boston, Massachusetts. She sought a graduate program that would help her leverage her knowledge and experience to help conserve the world’s oceans. Linske specifically chose the EMAP program because of its coverage of the many important aspects of environmental issues related to chemical pollution, the exposure to federal research and policy-making agencies in the Washington, D.C. area that include, but are not limited to, the US Environmental Protection Agency and NIST, and full access to world-leading experts from these agencies who teach for EMAP.

Linske exemplifies students enrolled in the EMAP program at Georgetown University, which is a top-notch and unique interdisciplinary graduate program on applying best available sciences to environmental policymaking for chemical pollution prevention and management. The program offers students a well-integrated experiential learning curriculum of highest rigor so that they can be roundly educated and professionally well trained for starting impactful careers leading environmental research and policymaking at all levels of government, industry, and other organizations.

Here is a conversation between Linske and Leah Kauffman on Linske’s participation in and contributions to writing the report. Kauffman is the Director of Communications, Material Measurement Laboratory, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), an expert in science communications, and an affiliated faculty member in EMAP.

Kauffman: So, tell me about Oceana. What kind of organization is it?

Linske: Oceana is a non-profit organization and the first ocean exclusive advocacy group in the world. It was founded about 20 years ago and it has a wide range of campaigns that they work on, including saving the North Atlantic right whales from extinction, ocean plastic pollution as well as seafood fraud, and others. They have a really wide range of campaigns that they work on to help educate as well as inform the legislative branch of our government to help make policies that would mitigate future ocean issues.

Kauffman: And are they a consortium? Do other organizations belong to Oceana, or are they a standalone? Who joins as a member?

Linske: Oceana is a standalone. They definitely have partners that they work with, but it’s a standalone organization. They do everything internally. It’s an international organization, so it’s spread through countries worldwide.

Kauffman: How did you get involved with them?

Linske: I applied for a science internship last August (2019), I got it and started September 16th. I was working on the Plastic Campaign Team and I didn’t really know I was going to be writing this report when I had started. They knew my background was specifically in marine biology, focusing on sea turtles and marine animals. A huge part of why I went back to school was because I saw so much plastic ingestion by these animals so my experience helped morph this and begin the work on this report that we worked on for over a year.

Kauffman: Tell me about your previous experience with plastics in the marine mammals or marine life.

Linske: Yes, specifically marine animals, seals, dolphins and whales as well as sea turtles. More so sea turtles. I worked at New England Aquarium for about six years. They have a rehabilitation program as well as a field response program. I helped recover animals from the beach as well as rehab sea turtles in house through my time there. Six years is a long time for me, but in the scope of things, it’s really not that long.

I personally saw a lot more ingestion of plastic as time grew. It was plastic balloons, just random plastic pieces, plastic entanglements. When you see an animal come in that has plastic balloons coming out of its mouth and doesn’t make it because of that, it really affects you – especially when it’s an obvious human-caused death of an animal that’s endangered.

Kauffman: Yeah, I had that reaction just looking at those pictures in the report. Really impactful and heartbreaking. What was it like working on the report? Did you conduct science, did you analyze literature? Tell me about that work.

Linske: Yes, I did both. I reached out to organizations, including the federal government, to get data so we could have data sources. That was my responsibility. I reached out to over 50 organizations to get this information. And then I went through it and categorized it like, ‘Oh, this is plastic injection, this is not plastic ingestion’ We had an idea of what was being ingested and how many animals are being affected by it.

I did a tremendous amount of literature reviews to understand what has already been done. I also relied on my own knowledge of animal behavior and marine animals in the process and incorporated information as to why these animals are important to our overall ocean health in terms of ecosystem services they offer.

Kauffman: How many people did you work with on the report? How many co-authors do you have?

Linske: There are five authors, including myself, so four other co-authors. I worked mainly with Dr. Kimberly Warner, who is the senior scientist on the plastic campaign. I was her intern, so we did most of the work together. And then there is a writer who specifically takes our words and makes them a little less technical, a little bit more appropriate for the general public.

Kauffman: That brings me to my next question. Thank you for this report. Who are you hoping will see it?

Linske:  We’re hoping really just the public; it’s not specific, it’s not geared towards scientists, it’s geared for non-scientists to really help them understand what’s happening in our oceans in non-technical terms and really relatable images that they can connect with. Then, you know, if it gets to Congress and they see it and it helps them to move legislation, that would be great, too.

Kauffman: Are you tracking current legislation? Was that part of your literature review?

Linske: There’s a pretty extensive Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, it’s in Congress right now, I’m not sure what the current status is of it. It was introduced in February or March (2020) by two congressmen: Representative Lowenthal and Senator Udall. I’m not sure what the status of it right now, I think it’s probably been halted, just put on the back burner because of the current pandemic we’re in.  

Kauffman: So, if you had a chance to talk to somebody like Senator Udall or somebody who’s not yet on board with the idea of addressing the issue, what would you say to that person?

Linske: I would say that this is a much bigger problem than what we see. I think it’s really easy for us to go down to the beach or go down to a riverbank and we don’t see plastic and we say, ‘Oh, it’s not affecting us,’ but it is. It’s such a massive problem, and this report just really sheds light as to these innocent animals that aren’t creating this problem, but they are the ones who are being impacted. And it’s not just a quick death – they will starve to death. They’ll slowly become emaciated. And if that makes them starve to death or it makes them so weak that they get struck by a boat or something like that, that’s what’s happening.

And each animal out there, it does have a larger impact than what they think. I was fortunate to go to a testimony on this plastic pollution. And one of the first questions was, ‘Why should we care about these animals? Why should I care about a sea turtle that’s ingesting a plastic straw or something like that?’ And it’s because they provide such an important ecosystem service to our oceans. , While, yes, one might not make a difference, but hundreds and hundreds of thousands do and we don’t know how extensive this problem is.

Kauffman: [Follow up question, with your work in an aquarium] Why do you think it’s gotten worse over a short span like that? Or why, in general, has it gotten worse?

Linske: Well, I definitely think that people are using more plastic. I think, it’s a really easy lifestyle choice, people can just grab a plastic cup from a donut shop or a coffee shop. It’s so easy. We’re all so rushed. It’s hard to take the time to grab your metal straw or clean that out at night so you have it cleaned for the next day. But I definitely think if you just look at charts, plastic consumption is up because plastic production is really cheap, it’s driven by the oil industry, it’s driven by natural gas, so it is really cheap right now to make new virgin plastic.

Kauffman: When you say you don’t know how bad the problem really is, is that because it’s so difficult to survey what’s happening, you know, in an entire ocean or an entire planet?

Linske: Yeah. I think there’s a lot we don’t know about plastic still. You can look at the surface and understand what’s floating, but only certain plastic polymers float. And then that also breaks up into smaller pieces. We don’t know how much is in the water column. And then also down on the ocean floor, certain plastic will sink or break up and sink down to the floor. We don’t know how much is out there. It’s unbelievably difficult and we’re seeing it everywhere now. We’re seeing it up in the Alps, we’re seeing it in the rain, in our national parks. Plastic is literally everywhere. It’s in the air we breathe. So, it’s hard to really quantify that, it’s really a new emerging field that people are really taking seriously.

Kauffman: Does Oceana pose any solutions to this problem? Are they able to do that?

Linske: In the report, they post several solutions or possible, you know, tools to help address this problem. One of which is to standardize for understanding how it’s affecting marine life, having a standardized way of collecting information on if you’re doing a necropsy, which is an animal autopsy, if you’re collecting a piece of plastic in that animal, take a photo of it, measure it, weigh it, say what color it is, what type it is, all of that. That can help us understand where this problem is coming from. And then there’s also other solutions, you know, passing the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, offering choices that are easier for consumers to take that aren’t plastic driven. And I think that it’s partially on humans as consumers, but a lot of it comes down to these larger fields that really need to offer other solutions for us to stop it at the source. You can clean up the oceans as much as you want, but if we can’t stop plastic production, plastic is still just going to come and pollute our oceans.