Happy Camper Plastic Activists!
Bahamas Plastic Movement Plastic Camp inspires youth from education to action
By Kristal Ambrose, founder of the Bahamas Plastic Movement
Photo (left): Campers removing plastic debris and other trash during a beach clean-up.
There I was, a 22-year-old island girl from The Bahamas traveling across the Pacific Ocean on a sailboat as part of a research trip. I was surrounded by renowned scientists, filmmakers and plastic pollution activists engaged in ocean plastic pollution studies. It was a trip that would open my eyes and set me on an unexpected path.
Back then, plastic bags, straws, Styrofoam and plastic bottles were all a part of my plastic-positive life. Before that voyage, I was oblivious to the impact our global plastic use has on our oceans.
When I saw firsthand what my lifestyle was doing to the oceans I love so much, it changed me forever. Realizing I was an environmental culprit, I returned home to The Bahamas and vowed to make a difference in my own life and nationally for my country. A year and a half later, the Bahamas Plastic Movement (BPM) was born!
I founded the BPM on the pillars of research, education, citizen science and policy change to raise awareness and find solutions to plastic pollution both in The Bahamas and globally. I knew I couldn’t make this change happen on my own, so I recruited the most inspiring, driven, passionate and creative people that I know − youth!
I needed a hub where I could show them the dangers of plastic pollution firsthand, like I’d seen it. I also wanted their feedback and ideas to help develop innovative solutions. In the summer of 2014, I ran a pilot version of Plastic Camp (#plasticcamp), which is now called Plastic Pollution Education and Ocean Conservation Camp.
It’s a tuition-free, intensive, week-long summer program for kids ages 8 to 16. Throughout the time that kids are in camp, we take them on a holistic journey, starting with understanding the plastic pollution problem and ending with developing solutions. It’s the first camp of its kind for The Bahamas, and the goal is to empower students to become environmental leaders and to tackle the issue of plastic pollution using a dynamic, creative, and hands-on approach.
This is extremely challenging because in The Bahamas, single-use plastic has been incorporated into our culture and our waste stream. Our current waste-management systems are old and poorly designed, with no large-scale recycling. Almost all of our waste is either burned or dumped into open pit landfills.
Sometimes, it’s overwhelming. But through our camp program, we harness the energy of youth and community to “think globally” and “act locally” to effect change. At camp, we form a partnership with our students as we collectively establish that we are part of both the problem and the solution.
Kids involved in our program discover plastic pollution through hands-on experiences. We don’t tell them about the dangers of plastic pollution. We show them. They learn about the dangers of marine animals ingesting plastic by conducting scientific research, dissecting fish stomachs and albatross boluses (kind of like a bird version of a coughed up hairball), where they find, count and analyze the plastic particles inside. They explore the vast Bahamian waters and trawl the sea surface to quantify microplastics. On our shorelines, they conduct scientific research to understand how much marine debris accumulates on our beaches, and they also give back by removing thousands of pounds of debris annually. They innovate ways to upcycle plastic debris through art and fashion, and learn to communicate their knowledge of plastic pollution use and prevention to their community by incorporating Bahamian culture.
PHOTO (above right): A student models her handmade "Trashion Fashion" -- upcycled plastic clothing and accessories -- at the camp's community show.
Photo (above): Students dissect an albatross bolus, looking for plastic particles and other marine debris.
Plastic Camp is a transformative experience that affirms our students' right to have a seat at the table in decisions that impact their future and our oceans. It’s a reminder that their voices are important and that they have the power to create change. Plastic pollution education is the vehicle we use to inspire them, but what we’re really teaching is youth activism.
Every year, we are delighted to see the passion and commitment of our students as they put what they’ve learned into practice to prevent plastic pollution. I’ll never forget one day during camp when we didn’t have access to reusable cutlery. The kids refused to use disposable utensils and instead created spoons by reusing the aluminum foil the food came wrapped in. I felt so proud!
That same level of commitment extends to their lives outside of camp and continues after camp is over. Community members and plastic pollution activists tell me stories of seeing our students shopping with their reusable bags and refusing to use plastic straws. Often it makes me wonder, what is stopping adults from making the change?
Photo: The 2017 students at Plastic Pollution Education and Ocean Conservation Camp's main program on Eleuthera Island pose for a group shot.
Within the last four years, our program has grown tremendously. A total of 230 students have attended Plastic Camp and its satellite camps, and many return year after year. The best part about it is that our participants have moved from education to action.
In 2017, our theme was Innovating Solutions to Plastic Pollution. Our students created local campaigns for plastic straw reduction at local restaurants. They created zero-waste lifestyle videos demonstrating how to make plastic- free beauty products such as body scrubs and toothpaste. They launched a “better bag” initiative at a local grocery store to promote reusable bags. Finally, they created a call-to-action video for the Minister of Environment to ban plastic bags in The Bahamas.
As our students enter a new school year following camp, the realities of a single-use plastic lifestyle plague them on campus. Lunch is sold in Styrofoam containers, and snacks come packaged in plastic. With limited or non-existent water-refill stations, the students are sometimes forced to buy bottled water.
When faced with these challenges, many of our campers become even more committed to finding solutions. They’re leaders in their schools’ eco-clubs, where they engage in school recycling and Styrofoam-replacement initiatives. Several of our former campers, who are now camp counselors and eco club board members, are leading the charge on a campus-wide cleanup initiative. Our campers take what they see, experience and learn in camp, and carry it forward to drive change in a way that inspires me every day.
There’s no quick fix or single solution that will solve plastic pollution. What works for one country or for one person may not work for another. Plastic pollution needs to be mitigated at the production level, starting with the industry, thus leading to the suppression of a global plastic appetite.
Fighting this issue is a struggle that can feel overwhelming. But every day, I find hope in the strength of a child who simply comes to me and says, “Ms. Kristal, I have an idea for stopping plastic pollution.” Suddenly, I’m reminded why I continue in this fight − to ensure that future generations have healthy, thriving oceans.
All photos courtesy of the Bahamas Plastic Movement.
About the author:
Kristal Ambrose, also known as ‘‘Kristal Ocean,’’ is an environmental scientist studying marine debris and plastic pollution in The Bahamas. After sailing across the Pacific Ocean in 2012 to study the Western Garbage Patch, Kristal was inspired to return home to The Bahamas to spark a plastic pollution revolution.
Her career in the environmental field spans a decade. She is the founder and director of Bahamas Plastic Movement (BPM), a nonprofit organization geared toward raising awareness and finding solutions to plastic pollution. In 2014, she received the Environmental Youth Leader Award from The Government of The Bahamas for her efforts in the field. In December 2016, she attained a bachelor of arts degree in Interdisciplinary Studies at Gannon University in Erie, Penn., with a focus on Environmental Science, Biology and Education. Currently, she is pursuing her master's degree in Marine Management at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada. She aims to establish a marine debris management plan for her country.