Kristal Ambrose’s story starts with a turtle.
An x-ray revealed that the turtle was plagued by plastic—plastic that was blocking its intestines, preventing it from eating. Ambrose was working in an aquarium then, so she held down the little guy’s flippers while her colleagues removed the bits of plastic from the turtle’s rectum. Seeing the turtle shed some tears, Ambrose cried, too.
Welcome to The Frontline, where environmental justice includes the oceans and fish friends. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. Today’s edition spotlights another Goldman Prize winner. Ambrose is a 30-year-old ocean pollution advocate in the Bahamas. She’s seen up close and personal the disastrous impact humans are having on our oceans. And Ambrose understands that these consequences ultimately come back to haunt us, too.
Plastic is a human creation that requires heat, chemicals, and fossil fuels. That last ingredient is critical as the burning of fossil fuels is behind global temperature rise. Now, fossil fuel companies are doubling down on plastic production as they see the sun setting on oil and gas.
These petrochemical refineries cranking out our plastic bottles, straws, and bags spew dangerous toxins into the air. And they’re disproportionately located in Gulf Coast states like Texas and Louisiana near the same communities of color that COVID-19 is killing today.
Ambrose’s work begins where this production cycle ends: what happens to plastic when we’re done with it. Surrounded by the ocean, Ambrose could never escape this reality. Before becoming an advocate, she studied marine science, witnessing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch firsthand. Surveying all the plastic items—like hairbrushes and toothbrushes—she realized how pervasive this problem had become.
“I started to see that all of the things that I use in my daily life were in the middle of the ocean,” Ambrose says. “I realized that if I was a part of the problem, I could equally be a part of the solution.”
Her journey has been yearslong, but her research and youth-focused organizing finally reached a fever pitch in 2017. Ambrose was determined for the Bahamas to pass a ban on single-use plastics. She and her students with the Bahamas Plastic Movement wrote petitions, sent videos to ministers, and even drafted a bill for a ban.
“I always tell people it’s a fine line between depression and inspiration. Working with the children, with the young people, they’re the ones who keep me going and keep me inspired.”
The next year, the ban passed. It went into effect earlier this year. That doesn’t mean her work is over. Oh, no. She’s only getting started.
“It’s a step in the right direction, and I’m thrilled that it’s ongoing, but it’s not the means to an end,” Ambrose says. “Even though we have phased out single-use plastics in the country, are we realistically replacing one waste item with another?”
These are the questions she now asks herself. She’s focused on the big picture now. Plastic isn’t all we throw out, after all. We throw out leftover food and expired prescriptions, household cleaners full of nasty chemicals and electronics full of toxic metals. Working toward a zero-waste future is the ultimate goal.
Ambrose still worries she’s not doing enough, constantly bearing the weight of the world on her shoulders. She’s slowly learning that she can’t solve it all, but she can help plant the seeds so that enough young people follow in her footsteps to ensure sea creatures like that turtle she saved all those years ago have somewhere safe to swim.
“This is a monumental issue,” she says. “I always tell people it’s a fine line between depression and inspiration. Working with the children, with the young people, they’re the ones who keep me going and keep me inspired.”