Twelve years ago, Kristal Ambrose embarked on a sea expedition that would shatter her perceptions about the sustainability of our oceans and the devastating impact of plastic pollution on marine ecosystems, the planet, and, ultimately, human life.

It was a pivotal, life-defining moment that changed her trajectory and inspired the formation of The Bahamas Plastic Movement (BPM). This local nonprofit is swimming upstream to transform mindsets and actively move us towards a plastic-free Bahamas.

Known as “Kristal Ocean” to her friends and students and Dr. Ambrose in academic circles, this passionate scientist, activist, educator, non-profit, and youth leader is best known for convincing the Government to introduce a nationwide ban on single-use plastic bags, cutlery, straws, and Styrofoam containers.

This monumental decision was announced in 2018 and was enacted in January 2020 after Kristal traveled from South Eleuthera with a handful of her teenage students. Armed with their scientific findings and proposed legislation, the team presented their case to the Minister of Environment and Housing at the time, the Hon. Romauld Ferreira. It was a historic event and an extraordinary win.

Expedition at Sea

Looking back and pinpointing the moment that the magnitude of the global ocean pollution problem hit home, Kristal reflects on a fateful scientific sea expedition she took in 2012 at the age of twenty-two. She had been invited to join a group of scientists on a twenty-day sailing trip from The Marshall Islands in the Central Pacific to Japan. Her assignment was to study the Western Garbage Patch, a vast spinning vortex of marine debris, primarily plastics, being moved across expanses of open ocean and powered by systems of large rotating ocean currents called gyres.

These systems act as an oceanic conveyor belt trapping and transporting tons of land waste, derelict fishing equipment, and other ocean debris. The garbage clusters contained in gyres often entangle and kill marine wildlife. Over time, with the action of the sun and waves, the plastic waste within it breaks down into even more pervasive and dangerous fragments called microplastics.

Plastics at Home

“It took me being in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by nothing but water, wildlife, and waste, and seeing firsthand how plastic ‘from land’ was in the middle of the ocean, impacting animals. I returned from that trip, seeing the devastation to the ocean, and realized that I was a huge part of the problem. All of the plastic we were collecting from the ocean were things that I would use at home: plastic forks, straws, plastic combs, toys, toothbrushes, Styrofoam cups, bits and pieces of every type of plastic that you could imagine!”

If you are not an environmentally conscious individual or concerned with the interconnectedness of life on planet Earth, you may wonder what this has to do with us in The Bahamas. To bring it home and quote Kristal’s research, “The Bahamas’ orientation to ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream and those associated with the North Atlantic sub-tropical gyre creates a sink for marine plastic debris (Lachmann et al., 2017). In 2010, plastic marine debris accumulation in The Bahamas was estimated between 200 and 533 million metric tons and projected to increase to 687 million metric tons by 2025.”

Plastic Doesn’t Decompose

As an archipelagic nation known for its stunning beaches and teeming marine life, plastic pollution carries a more significant threat that can directly impact tourism, local livelihoods, our food supply, and the fisheries industry.

Further exacerbating the issue, plastic does not decompose like other matter, and the infinite amount of microplastics that continue to emerge from plastic waste remain in most environments, whether sea, air, or soil, indefinitely. Microplastics tend to absorb toxic chemicals from their surroundings and, when inhaled or ingested through the food chain in large quantities, can become dangerous to humans and animals.

“For us here in The Bahamas, plastic pollution is a multifaceted issue that ties right back into waste management and health, and this is also a global crisis. It’s a waste issue, it’s a health issue, it’s an environmental issue, and it’s also an economic issue,” Kristal explains. “It costs a lot of money to clean up plastic, but plastic is also a billion-dollar industry.”

The Plastic Ban

On April 11th, the Bahamas Plastic Movement will celebrate ten years and the start of a new era of impact and advancement in conservation, environmental advocacy, and education. Having recently returned to The Bahamas after fifteen years of rigorous academic study, Kristal plans to rest and reset before unveiling her ambitious new goals for the next decade of impact.

“The plastic ban was a great first step, but ideally, it’s just replacing one waste item with another. We bring out the compostable plastics, but we still don’t have the waste management facilities to deal with those compostable and biodegradable plastics, let alone the other types of plastics that are not banned, so we still have to get back to waste management. I am strategizing the next move, which is going to be around enhanced education, research, partnerships, and essentially building a home for the organization,” she explains.

On April 22nd, we will celebrate Earth Day under the theme “Planet Vs. Plastics,” underscoring the urgency of addressing this global crisis before irreparable damage is done. We must continue to raise awareness around the devastating impact of plastic pollution on our oceans and ecosystems and support the work of activists, scientists, and scholars like Kristal, who continue to move the needle and drive positive environmental change in The Bahamas and the region.

About One Eleuthera Foundation

Founded in 2012, One Eleuthera Foundation is a community-based non-profit organization dedicated to transforming our local island communities into thriving, self-sufficient ecosystems. We do this by focusing on five key areas: economic ownership, meaningful educational advancement, pathways to wellness, and environmentally sustainable communities centered around our island’s unique cultural identity. We run a number of social enterprises, including CTI, our vocational school; the Retreat Hotel, a training hotel for hospitality students; and our farm and Cooling House, which trains future farmers in the best sustainability and food production practices. Through OEF’s consistent dedicated efforts, the tenacity and resourcefulness of our legacy community, and the support of donors and partners, we are creating change in Eleuthera.