Bahamian scientist wins Goldman Prize for leading kids in the fight against plastic waste
'I'm from this country, this is my island, and I have a stake in protecting it,' says Kristal Ambrose
When Kristal Ambrose was about 18 years old, she had to hold onto a struggling sea turtle as a marine veterinarian removed piece after piece of plastic waste from its rectum to save its life.
She was working at an aquarium at the time, and she still remembers the "agony and pain" on the turtle's face as the vet pulled out candy wrappers and strips of plastic shopping bags.
"It was just like, jeez, I throw mint wrappers on the ground all the time," the 30-year-old Bahamian marine biologist told As It Happens host Carol Off.
"Seeing that really connected me to the fact that plastic has a negative impact on the animals, especially the ones that I love and that I work with."
Ambrose went on to dedicate her life to fighting plastic pollution in the Bahamas, and inspiring young people to do the same. This week, she was awarded a Goldman Environmental Prize for her efforts. The prestigious award, sometimes called "the green Nobel," is given out annually to activists in each of the world's six inhabited continents.
Ambrose says she always knew she wanted to work in marine biology. Growing up in the Bahamas gave her a passion for the ocean and all the creatures that dwell within it.
But it wasn't until the incident with the turtle that she realized her own actions were contributing to their suffering. Then several years later, on a 2012 exhibition to the Western Garbage Patch, she saw first-hand the true scope of the plastic problem.
Off the shores of Japan, the area forms the western half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a massive vortex of floating trash from Asia, North America and South America.
"While we were out there, we were isolated from land, from other vessels, from airplanes, and it was just us, wildlife and waste," she said.
She saw buoys, barrels, Styrofoam containers and plastic fishing nets all tangled up with everyday items like toothbrushes, combs and plastic cutlery.
"And looking through that … I realized that these are all things that I use in my everyday life," she said.
"And it was then when I had the realization that I was a huge part of the problem. I was the biggest plastic offender that I knew, and equally so I could be a part of the solution."
She carried that lesson home with her, and launched the organization Bahamas Plastic Movement.
But she had to contend not only with pushback from industry and people in the halls of power, but also within her own community.
There was a perception, she said, that environmentalism was a rich white man's game. But as a Black woman from a working class background, she wanted to engage her community in protecting her homeland's fragile biodiversity.
"I'm from this country, this is my island, and I have a stake in protecting it. Why does it have to be a Black or white issue? It's an environmental issue," she said.
The Bahamas is a collection of small Caribbean islands, with an economy that revolves around tourism. As such, they're both producers of waste, and the recipients of garbage from richer countries that washes up on its shores.
"I realized the narrative of locals polluting the beaches wasn't entirely true because you could go to any isolated beach in the country and it would just be slammed with different types of plastic and other marine debris that washed in from a foreign source. And that's when I realized that we had a big problem," she said.
These young people who are from the Bahamas, whose voices are often unheard, they finally get a seat at the table.- Kristal Ambrose, Bahamas Plastic Movement
At the core of the Bahamas Plastic Movement is youth activism. Through her Junior Plastic Warriors summer program, Ambrose started engaging Bahamian kids.
"It was just like a big think-tank where we would go and do the scientific research in the ocean to quantify plastic out there. We were on the beach looking at the impacts. We were dissecting the stomachs of fish and seeing the impacts there. And as we went through the program, we did the education in the community, we did the citizen science. And then we started working on the policy change," she said.
In 2018, Ambrose and the kids marched in the streets banging on pots and pans, demanding the country ban single-use plastics. The group was eventually granted a meeting with the environment minister, and Ambrose was involved in drafting the Bahama's legislation to ban single-use plastics, which came into effect this year.
"These young people who are from the Bahamas, whose voices are often unheard, they finally get a seat at the table," she said. "So for them, they felt heard and seen and proud to be a part of history, you know, something historic."
And the children inspire her in turn, she said.
"When I'm at my lowest, you know, I get a call saying, 'Miss Kristal, I have an idea. We should do this, Miss Kristal,'" she said.
"They are the ones that keep me going, and they're the ones that remind me that more than anything, this isn't just my fight, you know, this is our fight, and that I'm not in this alone."
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kate Swoger.