When environmental activist Kristal Ambrose saw firsthand the profound harm plastic waste can cause to wildlife, she started a nonprofit and successfully lobbied her government to ban all single-use plastics in the Bahamas. Now, she’s been recognized for her work with a 2020 Goldman Environmental Prize.
Plastic waste is an overwhelming problem in the Bahamas. Foreign plastic routinely washes onto its beaches. Add to that the waste from the tourism industry and local domestic use, and the Bahamas is drowning in plastic. Without enough space and resources to recycle the plastic, the Bahamas has been forced to burn or bury much of it in landfills.
Ambrose admits she didn’t pay much attention to the problem until she started working in marine science. An encounter with a sea turtle sickened by ingesting too much plastic first opened her eyes to the effects of plastic waste on wildlife. But she was still a “big plastic offender,” she says, until 2012, when she got the opportunity of a lifetime: to sail across the Pacific Ocean to study the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
“I lived on a sailboat for nearly 20 days with a crew of about 14 people, and there was nothing around us except wildlife and waste. It was just us and garbage."
“I lived on a sailboat for nearly 20 days with a crew of about 14 people, and there was nothing around us except wildlife and waste. It was just us and garbage,” she says. “And just seeing it firsthand, I remember feeling so angry; like, ‘Why are humans doing this? Who's trash is this?’ And then once we started dissecting all that debris, and I started to see the toothbrushes and the combs and the plastic forks, I realized that it was my waste, it was things that I used every day in my life, and that I was a huge part of the problem. And, equally so, I could be a part of the solution. So, that was the awakening for me.”
Scientists estimate that by 2025, the Bahamas will have around 687 million metric tons of plastic debris accumulating on its shorelines, Ambrose notes — an amount that exceeds the biomass of the people who live within the islands. Much of that debris washes up in the Bahamas because of its proximity to the North Atlantic Gyre and the Gulf Stream.
She says, “We get things like octopus pots that wash off the coast of West Africa, from their fisheries; we get things from the southern Caribbean, like water bags, or detergent containers that wash up on our beaches; in addition to the usual suspects, we have oil jugs, and ropes and packaging straps from the fishing industry. And all of that is obviously fragmented. And then we have copious amounts of microplastics in our sand.”
And as climate change intensifies, powerful hurricanes are a continuing problem: Hurricane Dorian left behind 1.5 billion pounds of disaster debris. Ambrose says the Bahamas does not have the infrastructure or the capacity to cope with all of these problems.
The more she learned about plastic pollution, the harder it was to look away, Ambrose says. She started a citizen science project with her friend Carolyn Box from 5gyres that looked at how plastic “was moving over space and over time on beaches in the Bahamas.”
“I was working at a research station at the time and I realized, in the science field, there's a lot of science that is done, but the community is often left out. I wanted to bridge that gap between community and science."
“I was working at a research station at the time and I realized, in the science field, there's a lot of science that is done, but the community is often left out,” Ambrose says. “I wanted to bridge that gap between community and science. So I got students to come to the beach with me to help me collect data.”
"Every time I was on the beach, I would jokingly say, ‘This is the Bahamas Plastic Movement!’ I wouldn't think anything of it,” Ambrose continues. “It was just me on the beach, we were doing research. And I kept having these…visions of this nation, these people walking with me to create this nation free of plastic debris. And I was like, ‘I'm going start a nonprofit.’ And I did. And that's how that's how it came about.”
The four pillars of the Bahamas Plastic Movement are research, education, citizen science and policy change. The organization focuses its education outreach on young people in the Bahamas. Ambrose wants to use them as catalysts to take her message home to their families and communities.
In December 2017, Ambrose hosted a youth activism workshop, which brought in a local lawyer to teach students about legislation and how to write laws in the Bahamas. She also brought in a social scientist who taught them all about surveys.
“How do you measure attitudes and perceptions? Is a plastic ban something locals actually want? We did case studies where we looked at different countries and what they did to ban plastics in their land or in their nation,” Ambrose explains.
Finally, with the help of the lawyer, they wrote a bill of what a single-use plastic bag ban would look like for the Bahamas and took it to the Minister of Environment in Nassau, the capital.
“When we went there, initially, I was like, ‘Okay, kids, we have to wear blazers, we have to be professional, we’ve got to speak in our best professional tones,’” Ambrose relates. “And they're like, ‘Miss Kristal, that's boring!’ So we went in there beating on the desk singing, ‘We are the change, we have the solution, we can fix this plastic pollution!’ And we gave him three deliverables that we wanted by the end of the quarter.”
They wanted the minister to pass their bill through the House of Assembly; they wanted to launch a national awareness campaign by the end of March; and they wanted the Bahamas to sign the United Nations Clean Seas Initiative. The minister agreed to everything.
“The Minister of Environment mentioned that, even though they were kind of working on this, slowly but surely, seeing the young kids in front of him petitioning for their future really put the fire under him."
“The Minister of Environment mentioned that, even though they were kind of working on this, slowly but surely, seeing the young kids in front of him petitioning for their future really put the fire under him,” Ambrose says. “And on Earth Day of 2018, he held a national press conference announcing that the Bahamas was banning single-use plastics. And the rest is history.”
Even though they got the plastic ban in place, every time Ambrose goes to beach, the plastic is still there, she notes.
“Streams of plastic are still washing onto shores, not only in the Bahamas, but throughout the entire Caribbean region,” Ambrose says. “What happens to that plastic? That's something that I'm looking at. How can we create better management strategies to address marine litter concentrations in the Bahamas? How can we re-vision that?”