How one young scientist is tackling plastic pollution in The Bahamas

A blog by Metolo Foyet, Commonwealth Correspondent

This Commonwealth Secretariat blog is the first in a series launched during Youth4Climate and continuing in the lead up to COP26 and beyond, featuring young people from across the Commonwealth who are leading the way on local climate action. View the full blog series.

The blogs are written by fellow youth citizens from the Commonwealth Correspondents network. To be part of this series, contact us.

By 2025, it is estimated that The Bahamas will have around 687 million metric tons of plastic debris on its shorelines. This is more than the combined weight of the people who live on the islands.

One islander who wants to change this is Kristal Ambrose, environmental scientist and founder of The Bahamas Plastic Movement.

The Movement educates local people about plastic pollution through youth camps that use arts and data science to encourage policy change.

Meeting Kristal

I had the opportunity to speak with Kristal, an enthusiastic young islander who has been driving awareness of marine debris for over a decade and was recognised for her tireless work in 2020 with a Goldman Environmental Prize.

Kristal first learned about the dangers of plastic pollution in 2012, when she was on a sailing expedition in the Pacific Ocean to study the Western Garbage Patch, a 1.6 million square kilometre floating mass of plastic debris.

Isolated in the middle of the ocean, no aeroplanes flying over, no island in the distance, no boats passing by – just her, wildlife and: waste.

Kristal saw things that shouldn’t be in the middle of the ocean. Toys; a plastic comb that looked like one she had at home; a toothbrush of the same brand as that in her bag. And dead coastal animals tangled in plastic.

In particular, a sergeant major, the fish she had learned to identify when she first got into the field of marine science. Seeing that fish killed by plastic triggered a self-realization for Kristal: “I was the biggest plastic consumer that I knew. I was a huge part of the problem, and equally I felt I could be a huge part of the solution.”

Image credit: Dorlan Curtis Jr. and Jawanza-Small

Engaging youth

Soon after her trip, in 2013 Kristal started the Plastic Beach Project – a citizen science initiative which studied the concentration of plastic on local beaches.

Then, in 2014, she initiated the Plastic Pollution Education and Ocean Conservation Camp, a tuition free, summer-intensive program that engages young people in education and activism around plastic pollution. The program is funded through individual donations and small community grants from local and foreign organisations.

As the only member of staff, Kristal does all the logistics, fundraising, communications and research herself, but runs the summer camp with counsellors and volunteers.

Each year, the camp closes with a community show where students create songs, skits, poetry and dances related to plastic pollution.

“Whether you like it or not” – Poem by DeAnntae Hepburn, 7 years old, Plastic Camp 2019

Whether the sea be fine or whether the sea be not

Whether the sea be clean, but we know humans still haven’t fought

Not for the sea, not for the sand

Not for Bahamians’ gorgeous land

We have to change, whatever it takes

Whether we like it or not.

Success stories

Through beach clean-ups, school visits, citizen science projects and camps, Kristal has encouraged thousands of young people locally as well as globally to get into plastic pollution activism.

Some of her proudest achievements include:

  • Creating a ripple effect

One of the biggest impacts of plastic camp is the confidence young people leave the programme with. Kristal says they go home with “seeds of hope” that they plant in their communities through friends and families, which then blossom into new collective behaviours in society.

She says: “In 2019, I randomly saw one of the students from the camp. He was with his mother and had the exact same metal straw and metal cup that we gave him at the camp two years prior. His mother said he takes it everywhere and refuses to use any plastic. And that is just one isolated example, there are so many others.”

  • Taking the initiative

Another achievement Kristal is proud of is her resourceful networking. She was working at a field station on the island of Eleuthera when she first heard of the expedition to the Western Garbage Patch. By telling everyone about this $10,000 a seat trip, she eventually received support from a donor.

  • The Plastic Warrior Feedback Loop

The Bahamas Plastic Movement’s theory of change shows how graduated students come back into the programme to share their knowledge with other students.

Diagram designed by Metolo Foyet, based on model conceptualised by Kristal Ambrose

The Movement is also creating a ‘programmes manual’ to facilitate replication. But despite scaling her success, Kristal remains cautious: “I think having slow growth but high impact is important and once I am done with this chapter, we can get the board going. But right now, I am okay with the slow.”

  • Changing policy

At the end of the 2017 UNEP General Assembly in Nairobi, Kristal noted that most countries made a commitment to ban single-use plastic. But not The Bahamas.

Once home, she pulled her camps’ brightest students for a three-day workshop. They conducted a survey in the community to see if people would support a ban or tax on single-use plastic.

Next they worked with a local lawyer who taught them about legislation. Then in March 2018, students ranging in age between 10 and 14 years old, went with Kristal to the office of The Bahamas Minister of Environment and Housing.

Their efforts worked. On Earth Day 2018, April 22, the Minister announced that The Bahamas was banning single-use plastic, starting from January 2020.

  • Plastic Warriors Try

In 2021, alongside the regular camps, Kristal launched a sustainability and media communication program called ‘Plastic Warriors Try’. The fun, educational vlog series documents students’ journeys as they discover how to make their own products instead of buying new.

Kristal describes the week-long programme: “In the morning we learn about a new subject such as menstruation and look at how much waste is generated from that and what alternatives can be used. Looking at personal care products – all the toothpastes and deodorants and things that come wrapped in plastic – how can we make our own?

“In the Caribbean and Africa, we use a lot of synthetic hair, which is made from plastic. All of the gels come in plastic bottles. But there is a Black-owned company that makes hair out of plant-based material, and they take fibers from a certain type of plant and dye it, and you can braid your hair with it. It’s also compostable.

“Working with a local agricultural engineer, we’ll extract banana fibers from local banana trees to make our own hair. We are going to make our own gel from flax seed. We’ll learn about it in class, and the students will document how to make these things together when they are at home and will do their own video journal, and our editors will put them all together.”

Image credit: Dorlan Curtis Jr. and Jawanza-Small

Facing challenges

While Kristal has seen much success, she still faces problems in her mission to raise awareness of plastic pollution locally. These include:

  • Ineffective waste management

The plastic ban in the country is just specific to single-use plastic, but other types of plastic are still making their way through, including water bottles, snack packaging and plastic films. This is because as a small island development state, The Bahamas relies heavily on imports.

More than 90 percent of everything consumed in the country is shipped in, leaving behind a lot of waste from foreign sources, such as food, batteries, light bulbs, cars and building materials.

A lot of this waste could be recovered and circled right back into the economy or into other projects, but for the most part it goes to landfill.

Kristal explains: “We need to really look at waste management because the reality is we are replacing one waste over another. We need to get plastic out of the supply chain. The landfills in The Bahamas make this even more complicated: we have so many islands, and right now it is hard to regulate these in a uniform way.

“On the smaller islands in The Bahamas, everything is landfill. It is all mixed, not separated, not properly engineered. They just burn it. This causes health and social justice issues because those toxins go into communities. It is a big issue there. We need more synchronicity and better strategies for our waste management in the country.”

Then there is the plastic that is washed in from the southern Caribbean, west coast of Africa and the tourism industry.

The Bahamian population is just under 400,000, but every year, 5 million people visit, bringing and generating a lot of waste. Cruise ships also leave their waste in the country.

On top of that is disaster debris. As climate change intensifies, storms are becoming more frequent and stronger. In 2019, Hurricane Dorian struck the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama, leaving behind 1.5 billion pounds of debris. While it is a complex issue, it is all related to plastic.

Image credit: Dorlan Curtis Jr. and Jawanza-Small

  • Lack of ownership

Kristal has realised that although the health, environmental and economic impact of single-use plastic is well known, the convenience of plastic is embedded in society.  She also recognises that the narrative accusing locals for trashing the beaches is problematic, because a lot of plastic comes from other remote locations.

“Connection is key. I could go there and say ‘don’t litter, save the coral reef’, but if I haven’t been on that coral reef and not experienced the magic, I am not going to be as inclined to truly commit to it.

“Ownership is achieved by getting people outside of their comfort zone and getting them in nature, in the ocean, in these natural spaces, and getting them to really tap into what it does to their psyche. Getting them to love it and then they protect what they love.

“Through that connection you start fostering things like eating only certain fish when it is in season or using eco-friendly products.

“Shaming, blaming, and forcing people to do things doesn’t work. Communities effortlessly protect their habitats once people feel connected, listened to, engaged in dialogue and associated to decision-making.”

  • Tackling the problem at source

We keep talking about recycling plastic, but someone keeps producing it. Adopting sustainable manufacturing could help resolve the plastic issue.

Kristal explains: “Plastic is oil which is a big-money industry that does a lot of lobbying to overturn plastic bans. To properly turn off the tap to plastic pollution you need to turn off the tap to production.

“The production level of plastic is going to skyrocket by 2050 to billions of pounds, which is more than we produce every year. Industry is a big part of the conversation that is often left out.”

  • Social media

The changing culture due to globalization and the growth of social media have made it easier for young people to express their opinions.

Kristal believes young people are given more opportunities to speak up today, but warns that talking about plastic could be depressing and overwhelming, so mental health support is critical to effective activism.

“Growing up, I don’t remember seeing any young children on the frontlines fighting for change, and often it is because our voices were suppressed.

“Today, I see social media spaces where young people are encouraged to speak, step up and tackle so many issues. It is really empowering to see that.”

Image credit: Kristal Ambrose

Following a dream

Working with young people is rewarding Kristal believes, because they learn fast, bring new perspectives and are powerful and effective in their leadership.

Bringing passion, energy and creativity, young people think outside of the box, as well as being good with technology and social media.

“They think about things in different ways that I may not consider, and sometimes it takes the student saying ‘I don’t think this is going to work, what if we try it this way’.”

Kristal’s story shows that resilience and optimism are ingredients for success. It sends a message to everyone – especially Black and brown children in The Bahamas – that they can do it too. That there are no limitations.

She offers useful advice to young activist entrepreneurs: “It is going to be hard. People can project their fears onto you. You are going to have to remember your why and always come back to it. Be fearless and lead with the heart.

“My purpose is beyond plastic, it is really about representation and showing that you could be from a small community, a poor family, a non-Ivy League graduate, and still be a source of inspiration.”

To successfully empower communities to act on climate and environmental issues like plastic pollution, Kristal’s movement shows that we must help young people understand that they have the power to make a difference.

As we close our conversation, Kristal says: “The science is as simple as picking the plastic and counting it and using it as a tool of empowerment to say that science is for everyone.

“You don’t have to look a certain way to be a scientist. Our work is truly rooted in the hopefulness of engaging young people in education and activism around plastic pollution. It is challenging, but so fulfilling and joyful.”

To learn more about Kristal Ambrose’s innovative plastic pollution programmes, visit the Bahamas Plastic Movement.

This Commonwealth Secretariat blog is the first in a series launched during Youth4Climate and continuing in the lead up to COP26 and beyond, featuring young people from across the Commonwealth who are leading the way on local climate action. View the full blog series.

The blogs are written by fellow youth citizens from the Commonwealth Correspondents network. To be part of this series, contact us

You can share this blog series on social media with the hashtags #CommonwealthForClimate, #CommonwealthYouth and #BlueCharter.

Case study: Developing a National Marine Litter Action Plan, Belize (on-going)

The Commonwealth Blue Charter is highlighting case studies from the Commonwealth and beyond, as part of a series to spotlight best practice successes and experiences. To share your own case study, please contact us

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“The development of the Marine Litter Action Plan with the assistance from CLiP shows Belize’s continued commitment in the protection of our marine environment and work to reduce
marine litter.”

Maxine Monsanto, Environmental Officer, DOE, Belize (October 2019)

“It’s my hope our work under CLiP with Belize will help the country to continue to significantly reduce marine litter and support its world leading efforts to protect its globally precious environment.”

Peter Kohler, Country Lead for Belize, Cefas, on behalf of CLiP (October 2019)


Belize adopted its national Marine Litter Action Plan in 2019 following extensive stakeholder engagement and a public awareness campaign, which is still underway. The Belizean Department of the Environment developed this in collaboration with the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, through the Commonwealth Litter Programme (CLiP). CLiP worked with Belize to support science and evidence development and awareness-raising on the issue of marine litter, and included several components, all of which supported the development of the action plan, which will guide Belize’s work towards addressing the issue of marine plastic pollution over the coming years.

The issue

Plastics enter the marine environment from a variety of land- and sea-based sources, including (but not limited to) accidental or deliberate littering, poor wastewater and solid waste management, and deliberate illegal dumping.

Marine plastics disproportionately affect smaller coastal nations like Belize, where the economy is heavily reliant on tourism and there is an active fishing sector, and where often waste management infrastructure is limited.

In Belize, the Department of the Environment (DOE) began looking into the country’s use of single-use plastic items in 2017, prompted by the prevalence of discarded Styrofoam food containers found on the streets. The DOE convened an ad hoc working group to understand the issue further and undertook a snapshot analysis of the rate of import, manufacturing and disposal of single-use items in Belize. The results indicated that Belize imported over 200 million single-use plastic bags and 52 million Styrofoam and plastic food containers annually, and locally produced and manufactured an estimated 35 million single-use plastic bags and 5 million pieces of Styrofoam. As a result, the ad hoc group was formalised, and began working on a plan to reduce the amount of waste coming from this type of plastic in Belize.

The response

Although Belize had information on the volumes of single use items being manufactured and imported, it did not have data on the quantities being found in the environment (either terrestrial or marine). Therefore, when the Belize Commonwealth Litter Programme (CLiP) project was proposed, it was at an ideal time for the country to build on the work already started, and to begin the establishment of a national marine litter monitoring programme. CLiP included several components to support Belize in its efforts to tackle the issue of marine litter. These included:

  • Review of existing best practices for Marine Litter Action in Belize and how these could be scaled for the national action plan;
  • An initial baseline study of quantities and types of litter and microplastics in the marine environment, which was used (alongside importation, production and manufacturing data) to engage with stakeholders;
  • Additional studies on waste generation and management, port reception facility capabilities and desktop studies assessing single-use plastic alternatives;
  • Capacity-building activities, supporting the set-up of a microplastics testing lab and providing microplastics and macro plastics testing and monitoring training to government scientists and University of Belize staff and students; and
  • Education and outreach activities, including an awareness-raising campaign aimed at the general public, an art competition and an innovation competition, as well as a number of workshops and beach clean-up events held with local non-governmental organisations (NGOs), businesses, government agencies, academia, representatives of the tourism sector, fishing cooperatives, private sector, church groups and rural communities. At these events, the findings of the initial studies were presented, and the environmental impacts of marine litter were discussed, alongside current best practices and ideas for reducing quantities of marine plastic pollution.
Belize Scouts Association and Cefas on outreach. Source: Crown Copyright 2019
Belize Scouts Association and Cefas on outreach. Source: Crown Copyright 2019

Partnerships and support

The Government of Belize, specifically the DOE, worked closely with the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) through CLiP, which is funded by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). The Belize Marine Litter Action Plan was developed in approximately four months, a period that included all stakeholder engagement activities. However, it should be noted that Belize already had in place an established working group and stakeholder group working on how the country could tackle the issue of single-use plastics in the environment. The established working group included six different government departments, including representatives from the DOE, the Solid Waste Management Authority, the Ministry of Trade, the Ministry of Tourism and Aviation, the Directorate General for Foreign Trade, Beltraide and Belize Customs and Excise. Sub-committees involving academia, NGOs, private sector businesses and civil society were in place to help address and reduce pollution from single-use plastics. In addition, development of the Marine Litter Action Plan also involved consultation of stakeholders across multiple sectors including government, businesses, schools, and fishing communities.

Results, accomplishments and outcomes

The collaboration between Cefas and the Belizean government under CLiP has produced many clear and connected results. The main achievement is the adoption of the Belize Marine Litter Action Plan, which will guide Belize’s efforts to reduce marine plastic pollution over the coming years. The action plan was developed through extensive stakeholder engagement and supported by a series of policy papers. Stakeholder workshops identified gaps and actions related to policy, stakeholder coordination, waste management and auditing, outreach and scientific knowledge. A total of 25 marine litter actions were identified in consultation with the government and other key stakeholders. These actions provide a framework for all sectors to coordinate and tackle marine litter in Belize over the coming years. The Belizean Cabinet formally adopted the Marine Litter Action Plan on 27 August 2019. Belize aspires to take a leading role in supporting other Caribbean nations in tackling marine litter.

In addition to adopting the Marine Litter Action Plan, Belize has prohibited and restricted certain single-use plastics items (including plastic shopping bags, drinking straws, Styrofoam, plastic food utensils, clamshells, flat plates and cups). The adoption of this ban was supported by the evidence and stakeholder engagement activities undertaken within the CLiP project.
See the action plan.

Although progress on implementing the action plan has stalled temporarily owing to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the public awareness campaign has continued. Once the situation begins to normalise, Belize will focus on implementing some of the key actions in the plan, including (but not limited to) the development and implementation of a national plan to address waste from vessels at national level and incorporate pollution from ships under marine pollution prevention legislation.


The main challenges facing Belize when developing the Marine Litter Action Plan were:

  •  Lack of technical expertise (both governmental and in the private sector), for example knowledge on which alternatives to single-use plastics would be most appropriate for use in Belize;
  • Lack of equipment, for example to undertake the microplastic analysis; and
  • Lack of funding, for example for awareness-raising campaigns and stakeholder events.

In terms of the CLiP project, the challenges related mainly the time constraints, with just four months to work together to collect an initial baseline, analyse the results, present them to stakeholders and develop targeted actions. The initial work already undertaken by the Belizean government in advance of the CLiP project contributed greatly in terms of speeding up this process. The already present government commitment and established working group provided a good foundation for the Cefas project team to build on. The stakeholder network was already being established and this aided with activities within the short timeframe available.

Marine Litter Monitoring Training on Belizean beach. Source: Crown Copyright 2019
Marine Litter Monitoring Training on Belizean beach. Source: Crown Copyright 2019

Key lessons learnt

The key lesson learnt during the development of the national action plan was that, as a first step, any country wishing to develop such a plan should undertake stakeholder analysis to understand the different players involved. Through early engagement with stakeholders, any existing work already underway can be identified and built on. Second, a scientific evidence base should be compiled to present to the relevant stakeholders the need to develop the plan. Finally, a clear outline of the different steps to follow to develop the action plan and a timeline for completion should be shared with all stakeholders. These three steps are essential if the action plan is to have buy-in from the different stakeholders and members of the public. Another important lesson is to ensure that national work complements any regional plans already in place.

The UK-funded CLiP project in Belize has highlighted the necessity of having good collaboration with the country in question, but more specifically the importance of mapping stakeholders across sectors and working with them to identify how to add-value to ongoing work. This will enable smoother running of workshops, events and general logistical challenges but also help avoid any potential cultural misunderstandings.


UK-Defra funds the Commonwealth Marine Litter Programme (CLiP), which is led by the UK through the Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas). The programme supports a number of countries across the Commonwealth to tackle plastics entering the oceans. CLiP contributes to delivering the objectives under the UK and Vanuatu-led Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance (CCOA), which calls on other countries to pledge action on plastics. CCOA also promotes actions in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14 (life below water) to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, as well as contributing to the UK Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan.

This work has been graciously supported by the Department of the Environment, Belize and the British High Commission in Belize.

Lead contacts

DOE, Belize: [email protected]
Peter Kohler, CLiP Country Lead, Cefas: [email protected]

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Commonwealth joins forces with all-women sailing crew to fight plastic pollution

The Commonwealth Secretariat has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with eXXpedition, a non-profit organisation that runs all-women sailing expeditions to research the causes of, and solutions to, marine plastic pollution.

The collaboration will give Commonwealth countries geographic and ecosystem health information related to marine debris and its wider environmental impact, to help them protect oceans and manage plastic pollution.

Healthy oceans

Combining this research with actions taken by the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance (CCOA) Action Group and other Commonwealth platforms will assist in driving science-based policy solutions for healthy oceans across the Commonwealth.

Founded in 2014, eXXpedition runs expeditions all over the world, conducting scientific research and capacity building activities with communities, governments and partners.

Due to COVID-19, this year’s voyage is taking place virtually. Through online workshops the all-female multidisciplinary crew will share their own experiences, support scientific research and collaborate with community groups – providing a unique platform to engage women and youth.

Emily Penn, Founder, eXXpedition says: “It is fantastic to be working with the Commonwealth Secretariat on our Virtual Voyages which have been created in response to COVID19 – at eXXpedition we have always focused on what we can do, rather than what we can’t! We are excited to work together to accelerate the journey towards a healthy ocean using our SHiFT Platform, which scales up support for individuals and businesses to tackle plastic pollution around the world and which we will use as part of this new partnership.”

Plastic pollution

The partnership will contribute to work of the Commonwealth Blue Charter, particularly the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance, a Blue Charter Action Group addressing marine plastic pollution which is co-championed by the UK and Vanuatu.

Other Blue Charter Action Groups such as Ocean and Climate Change, Sustainable Coastal Fisheries and Coral Reef Protection and Restoration will also provide access to common data sets, shared practices, co-learning and marine scientific capacity building, in order to support policy development.

Paulo Kautoke, Senior Director, Trade, Oceans and Natural Resources Directorate, Commonwealth Secretariat, says: “We are proud to join this partnership with eXXpedition, which will greatly assist the Commonwealth Blue Charter Action Groups in developing broader capacity building and data collection capabilities across the Commonwealth. It will contribute to empowering girls and women, as well as create opportunities for innovative solutions to marine plastics and practical action for healthy oceans throughout the Commonwealth.”

Plastic pollution is one of the biggest threats to our oceans and marine ecosystems. More than 12 million tonnes of plastic waste pollute our sea each year, choking wildlife above and below the waterline. Around one million sea birds and an unknown number of sea turtles die each year from plastic debris. The effects of plastics carrying toxicity through the marine food chain is also still being researched, including the implications for human health.

Opportunity to join eXXpedition Virtual Voyage

Commonwealth Blue Charter is working with eXXpedition, a UK-based company that runs all-female sailing voyages investigating ocean plastic pollution, to offer a bursary place for the next stage of eXXpedition’s Virtual Voyage programme.

For the past five years these missions have been at sea, but given the pandemic the experience is now being offered virtually. This means eXXpedition can continue to support a community of changemakers in taking action against plastic pollution.

From live scientific analysis to collaborative problem solving, the immersive leadership experience is designed to equip and support participants in enacting change in their own country. By bringing the best parts of the journeys at sea to life online, the chosen crew have a unique opportunity to network with talented women from across sectors, deep dive into the cause of and solutions to plastic pollution, and receive one-on-one mentorship from mission leaders to find their unique role in helping solve one of the world’s most pressing issues.

Each Virtual Voyage has a 12-person crew of women from all over the world who will be connecting through an online platform. The full programme involves six interactive sessions and some independent research. The condensed programme will be delivered over the course of a weekend.

Applicants – who must live in or be connected to Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu or Australia – are invited to complete an application form here.

Case Study: Litter Intelligence Programme, New Zealand (on-going)

The Commonwealth Blue Charter is highlighting case studies from the Commonwealth and beyond, as part of a series to spotlight best practice successes and experiences.

To share your own case study, please contact us

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“We cannot improve what we do not measure’ has become a common phrase in the environmental space. However, robust environmental monitoring programmes are few and far between, and where they do exist, communities are seldom engaged with the monitoring work and data that inform the decisions that shape their communities.

“Litter Intelligence provides these communities, and specifically schools, with a unique opportunity to connect with their local coastline, engage in critical monitoring work, and protect the places they love.”

Camden Howitt, Co-Founder and Coastlines Lead at Sustainable Coastlines


Led by New Zealand charity Sustainable Coastlines, Litter Intelligence collects data, provides insights and inspires action towards reducing marine litter. Launched in May 2018, Litter Intelligence is a long-term programme that combines citizen-science beach litter monitoring and innovative teacher training and education to build a strong understanding of the problem and solutions for litter in the marine environment.

To collect and input litter data, Sustainable Coastlines engages communities around New Zealand, providing the training, equipment and technology required for people to take part in the programme as “Citizen Scientists”. By working to a United Nations Environment Programme/Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission methodology (Cheshire et al., 2009), data are collected with a high standard of scientific rigour, for use for national, regional and international reporting, including the relevant UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The programme focuses on solving the litter problem long term, with an innovative education programme that inspires and enables educators and their students to connect with nature and take action on litter in their local community, all the while gaining curriculum credits.

To roll out the education programme, the charity provides professional development training for educators. The approach is innovative and holistic, and is structured around a robust behavioural change framework. It focuses on educator professional development rather than resource design, so educational impacts are long term and scalable.

All data and training resources are freely and openly available through the purpose-built Litter Intelligence platform at

The issue

Plastics reach the marine environment through a variety of land- and sea-based human activities; therefore, marine litter results from human behaviour, whether accidental or intentional. Any measure to address the issue of marine litter must thus also seek to educate and inform communities, to ultimately alter human behaviour. To understand which measures will have the greatest impact in relation to reducing quantities of plastics in the marine environment, it must first be understood which items are most commonly found, and where these items originate (the source). Although marine plastic pollution is a global issue, the quantities and types of plastic, as well as their individual sources, vary greatly depending on where you are in the world. As such, any country or organisation wishing to take action on reducing marine plastics must first understand the specific issues in the area considered (be this a stretch of coastline, a municipality, a small island, a region or even an entire country).

One of the best indicators of types and quantities of marine plastics in any given area is the presence of plastics at the coast, or more specifically on beaches.

Monitoring of litter on the coastline is also one of the most accessible ways to gather data on marine plastics, as no specific scientific apparatus is required, and reliable, consistent data can be collected at a relatively low cost.

The response

Litter Intelligence provides local communities with the means to tackle specific marine litter issues in their local areas, by inspiring and informing better decisions for a world without litter. It does this by connecting people to nature, engaging communities with citizen science, and arming them with influencing tools with innovative and holistic education. The programme incorporates the following two components:

  1. A school education programme (primary and secondary) and teacher professional development that focus on the connection between nature and positive behaviour change, rather than simply education and awareness on marine litter. Through the programme, the school also adopts and monitors a nearby beach. Schools are provided with training to undertake the monitoring, and an inquiry-based programme that builds on the data collected at the local beach (e.g. integrated learning experiences ranging from maths, statistically analysing data, to crafting a response through the arts), working towards encouraging school communities to identify specific issues in their local area and take action to address these.
  2. An ongoing Citizen Science beach litter monitoring programme, in which school-based Citizen Scientists are an integral part of a nationwide programme and network of other monitoring groups. The data collected contribute to an official national litter database, which presents analysis of the data submitted and includes quality assurance and quality control to ensure data quality. The volunteer groups are permitted to submit data only if they have undergone the dedicated Litter Intelligence training. Confidence in the data is such that the New Zealand government uses it to inform policy

The programme is built on standardised beach litter monitoring, which is a localised adaptation of the United Nations Environment Programme/Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission methodology (Cheshire et al., 2009).

Partnerships and support

Litter Intelligence is led by New Zealand charity Sustainable Coastlines, in close collaboration with the Ministry for the Environment, Statistics New Zealand and the Department of Conservation. The project is funded by the New Zealand Ministry for the Environment’s Waste Minimisation Fund. The initial funding was for NS$2.7 million, and included design and development of the programme, as well as its operation (May 2018– April 2021). Sustainable Coastlines is currently seeking funding(1) to extend Litter Intelligence as a core on-going programme in New Zealand and to expand its reach to countries around the Pacific, and eventually around the world.

The programme was initially launched through a nongovernmental organisation statement at the UN Ocean Conference in New York in June 2017, and was subsequently listed as a voluntary commitment on the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 Ocean Action platform.

Litter Intelligence was also introduced to participants at the Pacific Environment Forum in Apia, Samoa, in September 2019. Alongside this, the charity ran training and an initial litter survey with forum attendees and staff from the Secretariat for the Pacific Regional Environment Programme.

Results, accomplishments and outcomes

The Litter Intelligence Programme has been running since May 2018 and has already has significant impacts on policy, environment, awareness, behaviour change and community action.

The Litter Intelligence database is fully operational and set up to house data from anywhere in the world, although it currently contains only data from New Zealand and a pilot monitoring site in Samoa. The education programme has been established in 13 New Zealand schools, with dozens more schools around the country soon to join.

Litter Intelligence has informed national-level SDG monitoring efforts; the programme was included in New Zealand’s first Voluntary National Review on the SDGs, presented at the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in July 2019 (for the SDG indicator 14.1.1 on marine plastics). As the data from Litter Intelligence inform the SDG monitoring and reporting efforts, the programme is expected to have a global-level impact on policy (MFAT, 2019: 101).

In October 2019, Litter Intelligence beach litter data were also included in “Our Marine Environment”, an official government report. This was the first time that marine litter data had been included in official reporting, and the first time that Citizen Science data had been accepted at this highest national reporting level (Stats NZ and Ministry for Environment, 2019: 29-31).


Three main challenges identified during implementation in New Zealand and through working with other countries around the Pacific Islands are as follows:

  1. Cultural adaptation. Ensuring all communities (including indigenous communities such as the tangata whenua (māori) communities in New Zealand) are equally reached requires much more than simply language translation and needs to be done with a holistic cultural lens and in direct consultation with the communities it aims to serve.
  2. Funding and resources. While the programme is funded for a three-year design and development phase, long-term funding is always challenging. The charity is investigating a range of sources for long-term programme resourcing.
  3. Standardisation. The majority of challenges with standardisation have been addressed through a robust training programme, making use of technology and strong communication tools. However, citizen science programmes by their nature require on-going training and support to ensure data quality.

Key lessons learnt

Sustainable Coastlines has concluded that education resources and technology alone cannot engage communities and develop capacity. Communities need human contact, training and support to continue to motivate and inspire them to engage with the programme. The vast majority of the environmental education programmes researched tend to focus on lesson plans and resource production, or some combination of these, while the overwhelming majority of behaviour change research suggests that these approaches have limited effect. This programme focuses on a holistic and innovative approach that does more to support (often) under-resourced schools with the hands-on environmental engagement needed to create long-term change.

Lead contact

Camden Howitt, Sustainable Coastlines: [email protected]


Cheshire, A.C., Adler, E., Barbière, J., Cohen, Y. et al. (2009) “UNEP/IOC Guidelines on Survey and Monitoring of Marine Litter”. UNEP Regional Seas Reports and Studies No. 186; IOC Technical Series No. 83.

MFAT (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) (2019) “He Waka Eke Noa: Towards a Better Future, Together. New Zealand’s Progress towards the SDGS 2019”. Voluntary National Review. New-Zealand-Voluntary-National-Review-2019-Final. pdf

Stats NZ and Ministry for the Environment (2019) “Our Marine Environment 2019”. publications/environmental-reporting/our-marineenvironment-2019


  1. The estimated costs to support and maintain the national Citizen Science and Education programme in New Zealand, as well as support the technology behind it, are estimated at between NS$250,000 and $300,000 per year. To expand the programme to additional countries (e.g. Pacific Island countries) it is estimated that between $100,000 and $150,000 will be required per country, plus around $15,000 per year for support and maintenance.



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Post-COVID recovery should lock in ocean sustainability, says Commonwealth Secretary-General

The Commonwealth Secretary-General is urging governments to ensure their countries’ post-COVID economic recoveries are environmentally sustainable and safe for the ocean.

Forty-seven of the Commonwealth’s 54 member countries have a coastline while 25 are either small island developing states or ‘big ocean states’ relying heavily on the ocean for food and income.

Sustainable blue and green economies

On World Oceans Day (8 June), Secretary-General Patricia Scotland calls on countries to reform development strategies in a way that supports vibrant and sustainable blue and green economies.

She said: “The ocean is the life blood of so many Commonwealth countries and our environment should be the cornerstone as we put plans in place to recover our economies. The Commonwealth covers more than a third of coastal oceans in the world, contributing to a global ocean-based economy valued at US$3 to 6 trillion per year.

“COVID-19 impact has radically altered some of our key economic sectors and transformed the way we live, communicate and do business. While the fallout from the pandemic has had a huge impact on our blue economies, it also presents a crucial opportunity to strategise on how to accelerate the transition towards more sustainable economic practices built on climate resilience and ocean sustainability.

“The Commonwealth Blue Charter is one of the most effective platforms for global ocean action in the international landscape today. I commend the work of our member countries through the action groups and welcome the support we have received from national, regional and global partners, enabling us to mobilise together for ocean health.”

Blue Charter action groups

The Blue Charter is the Commonwealth’s commitment to work together to protect the ocean and meet global ocean commitments. Ten action groups, led by 13 champion countries, are driving the flagship initiative. More than 40 countries have signed up to one or more of these action groups, and counting.

Commonwealth Blue Charter action groups include:

  • Sustainable Aquaculture (led by Cyprus)
  • Sustainable Blue Economy (Kenya)
  • Coral Reef Protection and Restoration (Australia, Belize, Mauritius)
  • Mangrove Ecosystems and Livelihoods (Sri Lanka)
  • Ocean Acidification (New Zealand)
  • Ocean and Climate Change (Fiji)
  • Ocean Observations (Canada)
  • Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance (marine plastic pollution – United Kingdom, Vanuatu)
  • Marine Protected Areas (Seychelles)
  • Sustainable Coastal Fisheries (Kiribati)

Members of the private sector, academia and civil society – including Vulcan Inc, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Association of Commonwealth Universities, Nekton Foundation and many others – are also engaged as Blue Charter partners.

Commonwealth Blue Charter – All Champions Meeting

Countries driving the Commonwealth Blue Charter project will meet in Cyprus from 21 to 24 March 2020. They will reflect on what they’ve achieved over the past year, and agree on a strategy for the coming year.

The Commonwealth Blue Charter is a landmark agreement by leaders to cooperate on ocean action. Since launching in 2018, 10 action groups led by 13 ‘champion’ countries have rallied Commonwealth members around pressing ocean issues like marine pollution, coral reef restoration and climate change.

Champion countries will share experiences, best practices and new ideas.

For more information, please contact Heidi Prislan, Commonwealth Blue Charter Adviser: [email protected] or [email protected]