Blog: How one young scientist is tackling plastic pollution in The Bahamas

28 September 2021

This blog about young scientist and 'plastic warrior' Kristal Ambrose is the first in a series launched during Youth4Climate and continuing in the lead up to COP26 and beyond, featuring young people from across the Commonwealth who are leading the way on local climate action.

A blog by Metolo Foyet, Commonwealth Correspondent

This Commonwealth Secretariat blog is the first in a series launched during Youth4Climate and continuing in the lead up to COP26 and beyond, featuring young people from across the Commonwealth who are leading the way on local climate action. View the full blog series.

The blogs are written by fellow youth citizens from the Commonwealth Correspondents network. To be part of this series, contact us.

By 2025, it is estimated that The Bahamas will have around 687 million metric tons of plastic debris on its shorelines. This is more than the combined weight of the people who live on the islands.

One islander who wants to change this is Kristal Ambrose, environmental scientist and founder of The Bahamas Plastic Movement.

The Movement educates local people about plastic pollution through youth camps that use arts and data science to encourage policy change.

Meeting Kristal

I had the opportunity to speak with Kristal, an enthusiastic young islander who has been driving awareness of marine debris for over a decade and was recognised for her tireless work in 2020 with a Goldman Environmental Prize.

Kristal first learned about the dangers of plastic pollution in 2012, when she was on a sailing expedition in the Pacific Ocean to study the Western Garbage Patch, a 1.6 million square kilometre floating mass of plastic debris.

Isolated in the middle of the ocean, no aeroplanes flying over, no island in the distance, no boats passing by – just her, wildlife and: waste.

Kristal saw things that shouldn’t be in the middle of the ocean. Toys; a plastic comb that looked like one she had at home; a toothbrush of the same brand as that in her bag. And dead coastal animals tangled in plastic.

In particular, a sergeant major, the fish she had learned to identify when she first got into the field of marine science. Seeing that fish killed by plastic triggered a self-realization for Kristal: “I was the biggest plastic consumer that I knew. I was a huge part of the problem, and equally I felt I could be a huge part of the solution.”



Image credit: Dorlan Curtis Jr. and Jawanza-Small

Engaging youth

Soon after her trip, in 2013 Kristal started the Plastic Beach Project – a citizen science initiative which studied the concentration of plastic on local beaches.

Then, in 2014, she initiated the Plastic Pollution Education and Ocean Conservation Camp, a tuition free, summer-intensive program that engages young people in education and activism around plastic pollution. The program is funded through individual donations and small community grants from local and foreign organisations.

As the only member of staff, Kristal does all the logistics, fundraising, communications and research herself, but runs the summer camp with counsellors and volunteers.

Each year, the camp closes with a community show where students create songs, skits, poetry and dances related to plastic pollution.

"Whether you like it or not" – Poem by DeAnntae Hepburn, 7 years old, Plastic Camp 2019

Whether the sea be fine or whether the sea be not

Whether the sea be clean, but we know humans still haven't fought

Not for the sea, not for the sand

Not for Bahamians’ gorgeous land

We have to change, whatever it takes

Whether we like it or not.

Success stories

Through beach clean-ups, school visits, citizen science projects and camps, Kristal has encouraged thousands of young people locally as well as globally to get into plastic pollution activism.

Some of her proudest achievements include:

  • Creating a ripple effect

One of the biggest impacts of plastic camp is the confidence young people leave the programme with. Kristal says they go home with "seeds of hope" that they plant in their communities through friends and families, which then blossom into new collective behaviours in society.

She says: “In 2019, I randomly saw one of the students from the camp. He was with his mother and had the exact same metal straw and metal cup that we gave him at the camp two years prior. His mother said he takes it everywhere and refuses to use any plastic. And that is just one isolated example, there are so many others.”

  • Taking the initiative

Another achievement Kristal is proud of is her resourceful networking. She was working at a field station on the island of Eleuthera when she first heard of the expedition to the Western Garbage Patch. By telling everyone about this $10,000 a seat trip, she eventually received support from a donor.

  • The Plastic Warrior Feedback Loop

The Bahamas Plastic Movement’s theory of change shows how graduated students come back into the programme to share their knowledge with other students.



Diagram designed by Metolo Foyet, based on model conceptualised by Kristal Ambrose

The Movement is also creating a 'programmes manual' to facilitate replication. But despite scaling her success, Kristal remains cautious: “I think having slow growth but high impact is important and once I am done with this chapter, we can get the board going. But right now, I am okay with the slow.”

  • Changing policy

At the end of the 2017 UNEP General Assembly in Nairobi, Kristal noted that most countries made a commitment to ban single-use plastic. But not The Bahamas.

Once home, she pulled her camps’ brightest students for a three-day workshop. They conducted a survey in the community to see if people would support a ban or tax on single-use plastic.

Next they worked with a local lawyer who taught them about legislation. Then in March 2018, students ranging in age between 10 and 14 years old, went with Kristal to the office of The Bahamas Minister of Environment and Housing.

Their efforts worked. On Earth Day 2018, April 22, the Minister announced that The Bahamas was banning single-use plastic, starting from January 2020.

  • Plastic Warriors Try

In 2021, alongside the regular camps, Kristal launched a sustainability and media communication program called ‘Plastic Warriors Try’. The fun, educational vlog series documents students’ journeys as they discover how to make their own products instead of buying new.

Kristal describes the week-long programme: “In the morning we learn about a new subject such as menstruation and look at how much waste is generated from that and what alternatives can be used. Looking at personal care products – all the toothpastes and deodorants and things that come wrapped in plastic – how can we make our own?

"In the Caribbean and Africa, we use a lot of synthetic hair, which is made from plastic. All of the gels come in plastic bottles. But there is a Black-owned company that makes hair out of plant-based material, and they take fibers from a certain type of plant and dye it, and you can braid your hair with it. It’s also compostable.

"Working with a local agricultural engineer, we’ll extract banana fibers from local banana trees to make our own hair. We are going to make our own gel from flax seed. We’ll learn about it in class, and the students will document how to make these things together when they are at home and will do their own video journal, and our editors will put them all together.”



Image credit: Dorlan Curtis Jr. and Jawanza-Small

Facing challenges

While Kristal has seen much success, she still faces problems in her mission to raise awareness of plastic pollution locally. These include:

  • Ineffective waste management

The plastic ban in the country is just specific to single-use plastic, but other types of plastic are still making their way through, including water bottles, snack packaging and plastic films. This is because as a small island development state, The Bahamas relies heavily on imports.

More than 90 percent of everything consumed in the country is shipped in, leaving behind a lot of waste from foreign sources, such as food, batteries, light bulbs, cars and building materials.

A lot of this waste could be recovered and circled right back into the economy or into other projects, but for the most part it goes to landfill.

Kristal explains: “We need to really look at waste management because the reality is we are replacing one waste over another. We need to get plastic out of the supply chain. The landfills in The Bahamas make this even more complicated: we have so many islands, and right now it is hard to regulate these in a uniform way.

"On the smaller islands in The Bahamas, everything is landfill. It is all mixed, not separated, not properly engineered. They just burn it. This causes health and social justice issues because those toxins go into communities. It is a big issue there. We need more synchronicity and better strategies for our waste management in the country.”

Then there is the plastic that is washed in from the southern Caribbean, west coast of Africa and the tourism industry.

The Bahamian population is just under 400,000, but every year, 5 million people visit, bringing and generating a lot of waste. Cruise ships also leave their waste in the country.

On top of that is disaster debris. As climate change intensifies, storms are becoming more frequent and stronger. In 2019, Hurricane Dorian struck the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama, leaving behind 1.5 billion pounds of debris. While it is a complex issue, it is all related to plastic.



Image credit: Dorlan Curtis Jr. and Jawanza-Small

  • Lack of ownership

Kristal has realised that although the health, environmental and economic impact of single-use plastic is well known, the convenience of plastic is embedded in society.  She also recognises that the narrative accusing locals for trashing the beaches is problematic, because a lot of plastic comes from other remote locations.

“Connection is key. I could go there and say 'don’t litter, save the coral reef', but if I haven’t been on that coral reef and not experienced the magic, I am not going to be as inclined to truly commit to it.

"Ownership is achieved by getting people outside of their comfort zone and getting them in nature, in the ocean, in these natural spaces, and getting them to really tap into what it does to their psyche. Getting them to love it and then they protect what they love.

"Through that connection you start fostering things like eating only certain fish when it is in season or using eco-friendly products.

"Shaming, blaming, and forcing people to do things doesn’t work. Communities effortlessly protect their habitats once people feel connected, listened to, engaged in dialogue and associated to decision-making.”

  • Tackling the problem at source

We keep talking about recycling plastic, but someone keeps producing it. Adopting sustainable manufacturing could help resolve the plastic issue.

Kristal explains: “Plastic is oil which is a big-money industry that does a lot of lobbying to overturn plastic bans. To properly turn off the tap to plastic pollution you need to turn off the tap to production.

"The production level of plastic is going to skyrocket by 2050 to billions of pounds, which is more than we produce every year. Industry is a big part of the conversation that is often left out.”

  • Social media

The changing culture due to globalization and the growth of social media have made it easier for young people to express their opinions.

Kristal believes young people are given more opportunities to speak up today, but warns that talking about plastic could be depressing and overwhelming, so mental health support is critical to effective activism.

“Growing up, I don’t remember seeing any young children on the frontlines fighting for change, and often it is because our voices were suppressed.

"Today, I see social media spaces where young people are encouraged to speak, step up and tackle so many issues. It is really empowering to see that.”



Image credit: Kristal Ambrose

Following a dream

Working with young people is rewarding Kristal believes, because they learn fast, bring new perspectives and are powerful and effective in their leadership.

Bringing passion, energy and creativity, young people think outside of the box, as well as being good with technology and social media.

“They think about things in different ways that I may not consider, and sometimes it takes the student saying 'I don’t think this is going to work, what if we try it this way'."

Kristal’s story shows that resilience and optimism are ingredients for success. It sends a message to everyone – especially Black and brown children in The Bahamas – that they can do it too. That there are no limitations.

She offers useful advice to young activist entrepreneurs: “It is going to be hard. People can project their fears onto you. You are going to have to remember your why and always come back to it. Be fearless and lead with the heart.

"My purpose is beyond plastic, it is really about representation and showing that you could be from a small community, a poor family, a non-Ivy League graduate, and still be a source of inspiration.”

To successfully empower communities to act on climate and environmental issues like plastic pollution, Kristal’s movement shows that we must help young people understand that they have the power to make a difference.

As we close our conversation, Kristal says: “The science is as simple as picking the plastic and counting it and using it as a tool of empowerment to say that science is for everyone.

"You don’t have to look a certain way to be a scientist. Our work is truly rooted in the hopefulness of engaging young people in education and activism around plastic pollution. It is challenging, but so fulfilling and joyful.”

To learn more about Kristal Ambrose's innovative plastic pollution programmes, visit the Bahamas Plastic Movement.

This Commonwealth Secretariat blog is the first in a series launched during Youth4Climate and continuing in the lead up to COP26 and beyond, featuring young people from across the Commonwealth who are leading the way on local climate action. View the full blog series.

The blogs are written by fellow youth citizens from the Commonwealth Correspondents network. To be part of this series, contact us

You can share this blog series on social media with the hashtags #CommonwealthForClimate, #CommonwealthYouth and #BlueCharter.