Green Talk is a blog series featuring interviews with people working in environmental science, circular design, sustainability and green business. We tell stories of kick ass people and their passion!
Pinja Näkki is a biologist working with marine litter issues, marine litter education and public outreach.
We first heard about Pinja Näkki and her work on a Spring trip organised by the University of Helsinki. She gave us a passionate speech about microplastics and showed us samples of grinded Lego blocks and car tires. Read our in-depth interview with Pinja about microplastics, her work, passions and the state of the Baltic Sea.
MP. Who you are and what you do?
Pinja. I am a biologist (M.Sc.) graduated from the University of Helsinki. Currently I am placed at the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE), where I am working as a researcher and preparing my doctoral thesis. I work with marine litter issues, especially microplastics, and during my years in SYKE I have participated for example in the monitoring of microlitter in the Finnish waters and conducting experiments on the ingestion and impacts of microplastics in food webs. Besides research I also actively participate in marine litter education and public outreach, for example by giving presentations in schools and showing bits and pieces of our research on social media platforms.
MP. What are microplastics?
Pinja. Microplastics are small plastic fragments, nowadays often defined as particles smaller than 1 mm. They are generated by fragmenting from larger plastic items, for example from synthetic textiles, car tires, derelict fishing gear, painted surfaces and plastic food wrappers. Some of the microplastics are also purposefully manufactured to small size; these include for example microbeads in cosmetics, pre-production pellets in plastic industry, and plastic fragments used in air blasting.
When these microplastics enter the environment, they are small enough to be ingested by various animals. Ingestion of microplastics can cause abrasions or blockages in the digestive tract, and the contaminants they may carry are able to disrupt the feeding and reproduction of the animals. Moreover, microplastics and their co-contaminants can also move along the food web. As plastic is a very durable material in the environment, this is a problem that will persist for a long time.
MP. What are you currently working on?
Pinja. In my doctoral thesis, I am focusing on seafloors, which are proposed to act as the final sink for microplastics ending up to our oceans. As the seafloors represent the most contaminated sites, “hot spots”, for microplastic pollution, I am interested on the fate and impacts of microplastics in these habitats. Currently I have finished running an experiment on the impacts of microplastics from car tires to the Baltic clams (Limecola balthica), since the particles degraded from car tires are estimated to represent a major microplastic pollution type in many Nordic countries. The results will hopefully tell if the ingestion of car tire particles and the harmful contaminants in them will cause any adverse health effects in these clams.
MP. What is the most challenging part of your job?
Pinja. In research you are supposed to find something new, to do something that has not been done before. That means often working outside of one’s comfort zone – it is necessary to constantly learn new skills and enhance your knowledge, and you rarely get the feeling that “hey, this is easy, I’m very good at this”. Especially now, in the beginning of my career, it is sometimes frustrating and hard to accept the uncertainty of research and the endless incompleteness in your skills and knowledge. However, when you learn more and finally succeed in something, it feels totally worth the struggle!
MP. What interested you in your profession in the first place? How did you end up doing what you do?
Pinja. I knew very early on that I wanted to be a biologist when I grow up. However, for many years I thought I would become a biology teacher or science communicator, because I love to share my enthusiasm of the natural world and spark it in others, too. When I started my master’s thesis, I became completely hooked on doing research. Research allowed me to use all my strengths in my work, and also satisfied my need to immerse myself deeply in a topic that interests me. I also very much enjoy the very diverse tasks and phases in research, such as field and lab work, writing, presenting and planning, and constantly developing my skills even further. It is exciting and rewarding to work on the limits of your own and communal knowledge, and to be able to add your own tiny piece of information to the puzzle scientists are collectively building to understand the problems with plastic pollution.
MP. What do you believe is the shift in thinking that needs to happen in order for us to solve this problem?
Pinja. I believe that the root for many environmental problems, including the plastic pollution, is the materialistic and consumer-centered culture in our society. I think we need to start putting more value on immaterial goods, stop the excessive consumption of natural resources, and implement legislation to support sustainable lifestyle. It is a lot to ask, and honestly I do not know if it can be achieved before we are facing the environmental collapse.
MP. You are from Finland and do your research at the Baltic Sea area. How is the Baltic Sea doing compared to other bigger oceans and what is the biggest threat to it?
Pinja. When focusing on plastic pollution, to our current knowledge the abundance of microplastics floating on the surface of the Baltic Sea seems to fall behind when compared to the bigger oceans. However, research on this topic has started only recently, and direct comparison of results is restricted by methodological differences. There are still many gaps in our knowledge: we are now slowly moving into understanding the complex effects of microplastics, and developing methods to be able to study plastic particles even in nano scale.
Overall, the Baltic Sea is especially vulnerable to anthropogenic pressures due to its shallowness, brackish conditions and large, densely populated drainage area. The Baltic Sea is known for having struggled a long time with eutrophication, which has been caused by the excessive nutrient input from land to the sea. Despite decades of work, the most severe threat to the Baltic Sea ecosystem continues to be eutrophication; this over-enrichment of nutrients causes algal blooms, oxygen depletion, changes in species composition, and threatens biodiversity. In many areas, the oxygen-depleted seafloors are completely lacking life, as the organisms cannot survive in these conditions.
MP. What is your favourite animal residing in the Baltic Sea and why?
Pinja. The Baltic Sea hosts a unique community of marine and freshwater species adapted to brackish conditions. My choice is definitely an invertebrate species, as I have always been fascinated with marine invertebrates; the astonishing diversity of their body plans, life styles, behavior and interactions with each other is something beyond imagination! In particular I am fond of molluscs, and especially nudibranchs, which are small, shell-less molluscs often casually called sea slugs. Therefore I choose Tenellia adspersa, which is a small and a rather humble-looking nudibranch living in the coastal zones in the Baltic Sea. The moment I first saw one, I fell in love with them in a blink of an eye!
MP. In your opinion what is the solution to solving the plastic problem? And how can citizens play a role in it? Do you have any concrete tips how to take action, where to start?
Pinja. I think there is no single solution to solving it; as the problem is complex, we need the cooperation of different sectors to be able to make a difference. The general public can have a role through pushing the manufacturers to remove or reduce unnecessary plastic in their products, through voting and lobbying the policymakers to make smart decisions, and through spreading the awareness among their friends and relatives. Concrete, easy first steps to take in everyday life are for example reducing the use of unnecessary plastic packaging, picking up the trash you see in the environment, and choosing public transport or biking to commute instead of using your own car.
MP. Who are your environmental heroes? Anyone we should check out?
Pinja. Amongst the very publicly known figures, such as David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg, I would like to give a shout-out to my grandmother Anneli Wahlstén. She already in the 1980’s woke up to the society’s “throw away” culture and decided to start a company selling ecologically and ethically produced cloth diapers and clothes for babies. She was ahead of her time, and I admire her braveness, determination and dedication.
MP. How does a perfect day look like?
Pinja. Oh, I just had many of those last month while participating in the coastal monitoring cruise of SYKE. A perfect day would definitely include being out at the sea, taking samples during the day and enjoying the outdoors with my colleagues. In the evening we would disembark the research vessel to have a stroll in one of the many islands in the coast of Finland, and watch the sun drop down the horizon. To make this even better, scuba diving could also be included!
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Follow Pinja´s research group Roskasakki
Photo credits: Jere Riikonen, Tuomas Lahti, Jani Järvi