Elyse Butler

After helping to save a sea turtle that was sick after ingesting plastic trash, environmental scientist Kristal Ambrose emerged a confirmed conservationist who is now fighting for her islands' wellbeing.

Interview by Lauren Paige Kennedy; Produced by Lauren Phillips

Kristal Ambrose, Founder, Bahamas Plastic Movement

Environmental scientist and Bahamian Kristal Ambrose has a life-long connection with the sea. She has her divemaster certification and has spent years working in research institutes around her native islands. Most importantly, she launched The Bahamas Plastic Movement in 2014 to help the people around her combat the plastic inundating their shores and seas. Its projects include research, plastic pollution camp beach cleanups, and educational outreach to school the next generation of local environmentalists.

Read more about Kristal and her work with The Bahamas Plastic Movement, along with the rest of Coastal Living’s 2017 Ocean Heroes.

Here, Kristal talks about how she was inspired to fight plastic pollution, how she channels her efforts, and how she handles plastic in her own life.

Coastal Living: Where did your passion for fighting plastic pollution begin?

Kristal Ambrose: In 2008, I worked at the Atlantis Aquarium [in Nassau]. There was a sea turtle exhibit, and it was an open exhibit, and one day one of our turtles just wouldn’t eat. We called in the marine vet, we got her out of the exhibit, and we did an x-ray and noticed that she had some internal blockage. We had to go inside this turtle and remove the blockage, and my job at the top was to hold down her front flippers. The vet was in there and he pulled out candy wrappers, bottle fragments, just all kinds of plastic. Turtles have these salt ducts that make it appear as if they’re crying, and the turtle was just releasing tears. And that’s the day that I vowed I would never drop a piece of plastic on the ground, or if I saw a piece of plastic I would pick it up.

CL: You joined a 5 Gyres Institute expedition with the organization’s co-founder, Marcus Eriksen. What did this journey teach you about plastic pollution?

KA: I didn’t really understand, necessarily, why they were studying plastic. I was like, “This is crazy, why are we studying garbage.” But we were out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and there was nothing around us. There were no other islands in the distance, there were no boats coming by, there were no airplanes. It was just us and all this wildlife and all this garbage. We were in the middle of the ocean and we came across this net ball, this huge conglomerate of nets and plastic debris that had met in the ocean and formed this huge ball. We started collecting this ball of 20 different kinds of rope, plastic forks, bags, bottle caps, toothbrushes. I looked at this stuff and thought, “I use this stuff every day. I’m very much a part of the problem. I am a part of the solution.” Seeing that connected the dots.

CL: What did you do after?

KA: After the trip, I was like, what a life-changing experience. I couldn’t see myself necessarily studying plastic until I kept learning more and more about the issue. I realized it was so interesting, and then realized that no one in the country was doing anything about it, so I started this big citizen science initiative because I wanted to know how much plastic was on the beaches here in Eleuthera. … I just kept seeing this vision of this mass exodus of Bahamians walking with me and fighting this fight against plastic and working with youth.

CL: And the Bahamas Plastic Movement grew out of that? What does your project look like today?

KA: Though plastic is the topic, if you take that away this project is rooted in youth activism and youth empowerment and community action. It helps students to understand that their voices are important. They have to know what it takes to be a scientist, to be an activist, to be an artist, to be whatever it is they want to be, but it’s focused on this issue. I just watch the students come in there and transform. It’s a safe space where they can be who they are, where they can connect with other students who are just like them and students who are not like them and we work together. It’s about teamwork. It’s about how do you work together to solve an issue.

Related: 11 Amazing Organizations Fighting to Save Our Oceans

CL: How are you working to help your community reduce plastic waste?

KA: [Spreading] the refusing concept and having that choice, maybe bringing your own bag or not getting a straw or bringing your own reusable water bottle—that’s one of the main things that’s tangible here right now. I think it’s self-recognition and awareness: [If] you don’t know better, [how can] you do better? I think that’s where it starts. The struggle for me is, how do you reach the communities that are more focused on feeding their families than refusing to use a bag?

Related: Plastic Fibers Are Found in 83% of the World's Tap Water:

CL: How do you apply your work to your own life?

KA: My life is not plastic-free. I’m very open about that. And I think that’s important. It’s very human that I don’t have it figured out. I live in a country where 90 percent of everything we use is imported. Our food comes in plastic—there’s no farmers market I can go to and buy fresh goods. I keep in mind that what works for somewhere else doesn’t necessarily work here, but every little bit that we do contribute to help mitigate this issue, minimize this problem, works.

CL: Your efforts are currently focused on individual action and education. Do you see yourself working more on changing policy in the future?

KA: Policy is something I’m definitely not familiar with and something that I’ve been very cautious with, especially with the bag ban. I need to take the guilt out of it. It’s already hard to live here—if we tax this bag, what about those people [who already struggle financially]? But I know it’s time to put the environment before the economy. This year, we’re taking it on.

More: Meet the Teenagers Who Are Kicking Plastic Bags Out of Bali

TAKE ACTION

Ambrose runs a program called "Upcycled," which asks students to think creatively about plastic waste. Apply the logic in your own world: Turn an already purchased plastic bottle into an edible herb garden, and repurpose everyday plastics into jewelry or decorative storage; bahamasplasticmovement.org

Responses edited for clarity and conciseness