Waste Management is Key to Preventing Ocean Pollution

Students tackle problematic plastics during Frog Forum.

(This article by Lisa Martin originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of TCU Magazine.)

In welcoming 16 students to the second annual Frog Forum, David Whillock painted a bleak picture of the world’s polluted oceans.

Discarding plastics, he said, could have widespread consequences — from endangering certain species to killing coral reefs. “The oceans are in critical danger,” and plastics are a huge part of why, Whillock said.

Whillock, associate provost and dean of the Academy of Tomorrow, issued a challenge to the students who participated in the forum, held before the start of the spring semester. “Plastic in the ocean is a problem you can do something about,” he said.

Photo of student at recycling complex

Waste paper products waiting to be recycled tower over one of the participants from TCU that toured the Republic Services Recycling Complex in Fort Worth. (Photo by Mark Graham)

Exploring approaches and solutions to tough problems is the central idea behind Frog Forum, a three-day, no-credit academic experience that brings together students from different disciplines to examine a single global issue.

The inaugural Frog Forum in 2017 focused on combating food waste. In the second forum, with input from faculty mentors, four teams of four students looked at ways to rid the world’s oceans of plastic waste.

“There is so much about the oceans we could talk about: rising temperatures in the oceans, the bleaching of the coral reef, how acidity levels are damaging fish,” said Chris Hightower ’94 (EdD ’16), associate director for institutional effectiveness, who helped create Frog Forum. “We also wanted something tangible that the students could do, a problem that they had real potential to solve.”

Diving In

After watching A Plastic Ocean, a 2016 documentary directed by journalist and adventurer Craig Leeson, the students chatted via video with Tanya Streeter, an Austin, Texas-based environmentalist featured in the film.

Of plastics, Streeter asked: “How can a disposable product be made of a material that’s indestructible?”

Kenzie Cherniak, a sophomore environmental science major from Austin, said, “Tanya talked to us about simple steps, like not putting your produce in those flimsy plastic bags at the grocery store, which is something I’d never thought about before.”

Also joining the post-screening video chat from the U.K. was Jo Ruxton, the documentary’s producer, who stepped away from a meeting to answer questions from the students. In the film, she introduced the idea of how plastic doesn’t so much “break down” as it does “break up,” resulting in tiny plastic pieces that fish, sea mammals, birds and other marine species often ingest.

Scientists are studying the potential health consequences to humans who eat fish or consume meat from animals whose feed includes fishmeal. As of yet, there are few definitive conclusions about the risks.

Read more in TCU Magazine.