A team of young collectors during a beach cleanup in Indonesia.

Since 2008, June 8th has been recognized as World Oceans Day. It is a day where environmental stewards are encouraged to recognize ways they can protect and restore our oceans. An awareness date in the calendar is great to evoke hope and community, but we need this to be a 365-day mission. For those closest to the cause, World Oceans Day is a stark reminder of the magnitude of our crisis and how much work is left to be done.

A study by CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization) estimated that anywhere from 4.4 million to 8.8 million tons of plastic finds its way to our oceans annually. According to Science Advances, the US contributed between 1.1 million and 2.2 million metric tons of plastic waste to the oceans in 2016. Scientists think that the amount of plastic in the ocean might triple by 2050.

National Geographic notes that over 700 species of marine animals are reported to have eaten or been entangled in plastic.

Currently, single-use plastic makes up more than 40 percent of all plastic trash.

World Oceans Day in 2008 comes a full 16 years after Canada first proposed the idea at the 1992 Earth Summit. Yet, after 2008 it still took another eight years before the World Ocean Day Youth Advisory Council was established. The delay is a glaring oversight. Today’s children are tomorrow’s activists, and their ideas and inputs are paramount in ensuring our planet has a future.

Mentoring future generations is a core focus of mine. Indeed, I believe it is my duty to help equip today’s youth with the tools to be stewards of humanity – and of the environment.

Providing the freedom and opportunity for people and industries alike to think about long-term solutions is key to ensuring a sustainable future. Getting youth to buy in on this idea will be key to making sure the conversation takes hold.

Kristal Ambrose, founder of the Bahamas Plastic Movement (BPM), is one activist making a real impact. As a youth in the Bahamas, she worked with marine life at an aquarium before finding an opportunity to study how Pacific Ocean currents trap marine debris. She then became an educator and began a series of projects to raise national awareness about the plastic pollution issue. Eventually, her students gained an audience with the Bahamas’ minister of environment and housing, and the nation went on to announce a ban on single-use plastics.

Renowned anthropologist Jane Goodall famously credits her mother’s mentorship for her outlook. Her mother encouraged her to view the consequences of her actions as teachable moments. This patience gave Jane the freedom to question things and make mistakes. It helped her forge the mettle she needed to overcome obstacles.

The continued success of initiatives like BPM proves how youth-led initiatives can affect real policy change. As role models, adults need to enact more real-world makerspaces where youth can be mentored to share, learn, and collaborate for the greater good – just as young Jane Goodall and Kristal Ambrose’s students were encouraged to do.

This responsibility lies with institutions, but also individuals. For parents, there are some great resources available (like NatGeo’s waste reduction toolkits) to help your children start thinking about the sustainability of their choices. Remember, the one thing you can control is what type of person your children’s role model will be. In my own experience, even if your children do not follow what you say, they will follow your actions.

I believe that life is given purpose by doing good in the world, and my philosophy is to focus on the destination rather than the journey, I aim to inspire children’s imaginations by asking them, “What problem do you want to solve in the world?”

This belief is what inspired my work with Plastic Bank.

Plastic Bank recently announced that we have stopped one billion plastic bottles from entering the world’s oceans through our work. By establishing “bank branches” that monetize waste in vulnerable coastal communities, we have established an infrastructure that promotes circularity and regeneration. This infrastructure helps repair the lives of people who are the most affected by environmental degradation and pollution.

Despite this win-win scenario, there is still so much to be done. One billion plastic bottles can seem like the proverbial drop in the ocean – especially knowing that every piece of plastic humans have ever produced still exists to the tune of almost 10 trillion kilograms. With the billion-bottle milestone, I want to begin a conversation that will change how people think about plastic. I want people to view it not as waste but as a resource with value in the circular economy. And I believe kids should be a part of this conversation too.

Providing the freedom and opportunity for people and industries alike to think about long-term solutions is key to ensuring a sustainable future. Getting youth to buy in on this idea will be key to making sure the conversation takes hold.

My strong connection to the ocean started when I was young. The beach was my background, my playground, and my sanctuary. I grew up wanting to protect the ocean. Eventually I chose to protect the ocean by helping to stop plastic from polluting it. But my desire never came from any ego attachment to being an environmentalist. 

Not everyone is lucky enough to share this life-defining connection with the ocean during their formative years. For those who grow up in large cities or landlocked rural areas, it is easy to become disconnected from how your habits affect ecosystems, or the people who live in coastal communities.

Today’s children have already seen drastic changes to the planet, from record temperatures to severe weather patterns, to health problems stemming from the ocean plastic crisis. One way or another, as these children grow, the planet will change even more. If we can help them adopt the mindset that they are powerful enough to address these problems, rather than just accepting them, we can help ensure that this change is a positive one. 

Embodying authenticity teaches younger generations to do the same. As parents and as activists, the best tool we can provide is a strong example to follow.