How Kristal ‘Ocean’ Ambrose became a Plastic Warrior (and how she started a plastic pollution revolution)

There is plastic in paradise. Kristal Ambrose, a self-proclaimed plastic warrior from the small island of Eleuthera in The Bahamas, is waging a war on it.

In the space of seven years she has started The Bahamas Plastic Movement; received an Environmental Youth Leader award from the Government of The Bahamas and managed to get single-use plastic banned throughout its seven hundred islands. In November 2020 she also won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. Not bad for someone who had never had a desire to teach or study.

I first met her when she was just seventeen years old and a local snorkel guide at a dive company where I worked. She was a smart and kind-hearted teenager with an underlying shyness. Now, at thirty-one, she is known as Kristal ‘Ocean’, an environmental campaigner with passion and purpose. I was curious. What made her declare “my voice matters” and how did she become a plastic warrior?

It all started with one plastic bag. The bag and other debris had wrapped itself around the intestines of a sea turtle that was brought into an aquarium where she worked. It took two days to remove it and convinced her to never to throw a plastic bag on the ground again. “I just saw a problem and knew I had to do something about it”, she says, matter-of-factly.

But how does one person begin to make a difference? “Start where you are with what you have”, she tells me. Kristal’s sustainability ethic was passed on to her by an older generation. “I always remember my grandfather reusing a can of beans to make a cup. My grandmother made bags out of old rice sacks. Nothing was wasted”, she recalls. Her advice is to get the best use out of the things you have for as long as possible. Reduce and refuse before you recycle.

Next, she says, you should “arm yourself with the information”. Eight million metric tonnes of plastic waste enter the oceans each year. During her research, Kristal found that around 93% of marine debris washing up on Eleuthera’s shores is plastic. The Bahamas loses up to 8.5 million US dollars a year in tourism because of it. She knew it couldn’t all come from cruise-shippers and domestic households. 

In 2012 Krystal joined a 5Gyres research expedition to the Western Pacific garbage patch. A lot of the debris she saw had been swept over vast distances with the wind and waves. She realised the geographic location of The Bahamas was part of the issue. It was making them a giant sink hole for the world’s waste. It was then that the global impact of using single-use plastic really sunk in.

Each piece of plastic you use, wherever you use it, has an impact on someone else, somewhere else. “So, the next time you use a plastic straw or a plastic bag I want you to think about my ocean paradise, and the role that you play in polluting it”, she says.

Kristal decided her best strategy was to speak to the younger generation. “I’m talking to children. Children get it”. Led by what she describes as heart and passion, she started taking ‘Junior Plastic Warriors’ on beach surveys. The wave of an idea began to form. “I would just jokingly say this is The Bahamas Plastic Movement”, she recalls. One day, while sitting on her sofa, that wave crested in to an epiphany; “I’m going to start a non-profit”, she decided.

The Bahamas Plastic Movement started in 2013, with tuition-free summer camps for nine-to-fifteen-year-olds. To date over five hundred students have been engaged and educated, arming them to be the next generation of plastic warriors.

In January 2018, Kristal went to see the Environment Minister for The Bahamas in the capital, Nassau. She took a few of these students with her. They persuaded her to go in like true warriors, banging on tables and chanting “we are the change, we’re the solution, we can fix this plastic pollution”. The government sat up and listened.  

Two years later, the ban of single-use plastic bags, cups, cutlery, straws and Styrofoam containers came into effect across The Bahamas. Although it’s early days, she acknowledges “it’s a great first step”. When she transited through Nassau airport recently, she says that it was amazing to see every restaurant complying, especially the iconic fast-food chains like Wendy’s. 

So, what is next? She’s currently furthering her knowledge by studying for a PhD. More practically, she’d love a permanent building for what she calls her “backpack organisation, that goes wherever I go”, so she can keep reaching out to new recruits. But she knows the war is far from over. “Industry has to be a big part of the conversation”, she admits, with access to alternatives and better systems in place.

And the positives? “There’s an awakening happening”, she notes, citing other young warriors she admires such as the teenagers in Bali who started Bye Bye Plastic Bags. She is also encouraged that her fellow PhD students are mainly black females from small Caribbean islands like hers and confesses “It’s so great to see diversity. It reminds me that I’m not alone”. 

In her acceptance speech for the Goldman prize Kristal made it clear that anyone can be a plastic warrior; “It doesn’t matter how young you are, where you’re from, what colour you are, this is your world, this is your future and you deserve a seat at the table in making these decisions that affect you”.

 A song played endlessly in The Bahamas is ‘Cheeseburger in Paradise’. Thanks to Kristal, the burgers eaten there will no longer be served in a Styrofoam container. And if her successes continue paradise will have a hell of a lot less plastic.

by Andrea Lee

all photos credited to the Bahamas Plastic Movement