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The hearing room was absolutely charged with energy. 

Every person was either nervously tapping their chair, pacing the hall outside, or staring into the distance—completely lost in their thoughts—as we waited for the vote. This was the proudest day of my life so far, the day we hoped to pass Bill 40 in Honolulu, the most comprehensive single-use plastics ban ever written in Hawaiʻi. So much work had led up to this moment—long hours spent preparing for presentations at local schools, doing beach cleanup after beach cleanup only to see the plastic litter return with the tide, riding in the car with my mom to visit countless restaurants and small businesses to discuss single-use plastics. It had been a long road, one that began way before I got involved, but we were finally on the cusp of a victory in my home state.

The decision came down to nine city councilmembers, and we needed a majority to pass the bill. They announced their votes one at a time, either an aye or a nay. I felt like I was in a movie, the suspense was building with such intensity. The first member voted “aye.” The room stirred. Then the second and third members voted “nay.” The next three councilmembers joined the first, voting “aye” to pass the bill. That made it four votes in support, two against. Bill 40 needed just one more vote to pass. Those of us in the room had our eyes glued to the seventh councilmember. We could hear the simmering whispers of the people who could not fit in the room, standing in the waiting area outside with their faces turned anxiously up toward the live feed screens showing the hearing.

All the youth were standing in solidarity, holding our scroll up high for the councilmembers to see. Representing more than 1,500 students from the island of O‘ahu who supported Bill 40 but could not attend the hearing in person, this scroll had been an instrumental part of our campaign. 
This scroll was signed by over 1,500 students from O‘ahu, in a powerful symbol of support for Bill 40 · Dyson Chee

The seventh councilmember announced her vote: “Aye!” We managed to wait until the last two votes were cast—both ayes—to unleash our excitement. At the sound of the final “aye,” the room erupted with cheers. Everyone jumped out of their seats, throwing their hands in the air and embracing each other in bear hugs. It was chaos. I felt bad for the councilmembers who probably just wanted to finish the hearing, but the energy could not be stopped. We had fought so hard for something that mattered deeply to us. This was a rare experience and one that deserved celebration. I think the councilmembers knew that too, and several of them smiled knowingly at me, as if remembering their first hard-earned legislative victory. I was 17 and had just helped secure a major environmental win for my community.

Discovering my superpower 

If you had taken me aside when I was 12 or 13 and told me that the second half of my teenage years would be spent giving hundreds of speeches in front of school classes and the public, meeting with strangers from around the world, and getting deeply involved in Hawaiian politics, I would have laughed and run away. I’m super introverted. When I was younger, I absolutely hated public speaking and politics. Those were likely the last two things I ever imagined doing. And yet here I am. It’s really because I care so much about this place, this planet. And it’s not just about keeping the Earth livable, it’s about keeping it beautiful for generations to come.

It’s hard for me to recall my first memory of the ocean. As a kid who grew up in Honolulu, on the island of O‘ahu in Hawaiʻi, that’s like asking someone about their first memory of their childhood home—“I don’t know, it was just always there?” Living in an island state, we are totally surrounded by the ocean. You can’t drive in a straight line for more than an hour without cruising right into the waves. So for me, the ocean has always been my second home. What I can clearly remember is the moment when I realized that my second home wasn’t doing so well. 

Marine plastic travels huge distances to reach the Hawaiian Islands. California is the closest landmass at about 2,400 miles away · Elizabeth Weber

There’s a beach by my house called Magic Island where I’ve been going since I was a baby, though my first memories are from when I was seven or eight years old. When I started swimming there, I would see fish, turtles, corals—the kinds of things you expect to see in the ocean. But I would also see a discarded chip bag, candy bar wrapper, or the occasional plastic fork. At first, I thought these items were out of place, but they didn’t seem like a problem. I ignored them and kept swimming. As time went by though, I started to see many more chip bags, wrappers, plastic forks, styrofoam containers, straws—just an endless stream of trash. I eventually had a realization that this wasn’t right. I began to do some research. I learned that the issue of plastic pollution wasn’t just a local problem in Hawaiʻi. It was, and still is, a global issue.

As I dug deeper into my research, I discovered how the health of the ocean is intrinsically connected to the health of humans. Yet every minute the equivalent of a garbage truck full of plastic enters our ocean.

And plastics are designed to be extremely durable. For example, it may take a plastic straw 200 years to degrade in the ocean, and polystyrene may take 500 years. However, these and other plastic items don’t actually break down, instead they break up into really small pieces of plastic called microplastics that continue to pollute infinitely. Plastic is also highly effective at bonding with chemicals and toxins. For example, when fish mistake a plastic item for food and consume it, the chemicals from the plastic can build up in their bodies. And when we eat fish and drink water, we may be inadvertently exposed to those chemicals and toxins too. Plastic isn’t just a problem for our beaches, it’s a problem for our physical health. 

I started looking for solutions to ocean pollution that I could implement in my own life. The first solutions I took part in were small things, like beach cleanups and a personal commitment to reduce the amount of plastics I used, especially single-use plastics. My parents and friends were supportive. I knew I wanted to do more, but I wasn’t sure how to make it happen. That’s when I discovered Ocean Heroes Bootcamp: a global gathering of youth activists committed to working for a healthy ocean.

OHBC is an annual gathering of youth ocean activists from around the world · Tyler Wilkinson / The Wilder Studio
OHBC’s mission is to help the Ocean Heroes become effective advocates for the ocean in their own communities · Ocean Wise
Many existing and emerging OHBC youth leaders go on to create their own campaigns to take action against ocean plastic pollution · Ocean Wise

My first experience at Ocean Heroes Bootcamp (OHBC for short) was mind-blowing. As a kid, you go around being told that you can’t do this and you can’t do that. Sometimes there’s a good reason for those boundaries, and sometimes there isn’t. Before going to OHBC, my thinking around plastic pollution was limited to smaller personal actions I could take. I thought I had to wait until I became an adult to tackle the issue in a bigger way. OHBC really shattered those false limitations. I began to realize my youth was my superpower—something I could channel to create change in ways adults perhaps could not. I met other kids who were already taking big steps to address ocean pollution, so I knew I wasn’t alone. I learned how to use tools like the Bootcamp Campaign Planner to plot out my project, which saved me time and focused my efforts. 

This experience inspired me to go from being someone who cared about ocean pollution to being someone who had the confidence to start my own campaign for the ocean. The power that I felt at that conference was my rocket fuel to come back home and start Project O.C.E.A.N. Hawaiʻi.

Widening the net 

With Project O.C.E.A.N., I take on plastic pollution through education and activism. One thing I’ve learned is that if people don’t understand the issue and you try to regulate it, they often just get mad at you, which doesn’t help anyone. So education is the first step. I began in my community. I called and emailed dozens of schools to see if they would be interested in having me come in and talk to their students. Despite my lack of credentials, I was surprised to find that a lot of teachers really saw the value of a young person talking to their peers. My presentation schedule quickly filled up. At these presentations, I explained plastic pollution through interactive games like “the rubber band trap,” where we mimicked the experience of a sea turtle entangled in plastic by twisting a rubber band around a student’s fingers and asking them to remove it with that same entangled hand. The students’ frustrated and failed attempts helped them to understand how dangerous plastic pollution is for sea creatures. 

“Despite my lack of credentials, I was surprised to find that a lot of teachers really saw the value of a young person talking to their peers.” · Dyson Chee

To make the leap from education to activism, I devised a challenge that I hoped would get people excited about their role in addressing plastic pollution.

Inspired by my experience at OHBC and the Lonely Whale team’s #StopSucking campaign, I challenged students to say no to plastic straws for a week. If they succeeded, I offered them a stainless steel straw to continue with their efforts and use as a conversation starter with friends.

People really loved this challenge, because it provided an opportunity to combine the issue with a personal story. Those who participated weren’t just sharing more statistics about the problem. Instead, we were all working together to be part of the solution. This emotional connection allowed people to move from making an individual commitment to being involved in larger, transformational changes. Those who took part in the challenge started to see that beach cleanups only go so far: the plastic keeps coming back with each wave and each piece of litter. We have to stop the flow of plastics from entering the ocean in the first place—and that involves policy reform. 

Voting for our future 

When I was approached about Bill 40 in the spring of 2019 and asked if I wanted to get involved, my immediate answer was, “Hell yes!” Before Bill 40, we had been trying to take on one plastic item at a time, but this bill addressed far more: polystyrene, plastic cups, plastic utensils, stirrers, plastic bags, and even baran—the plastic decorative grass in your sushi containers—you name it! The chances of passing this comprehensive legislation seemed slim, but we knew we had to try. 

“I’m super introverted. When I was younger, I absolutely hated public speaking and politics. Those were likely the last two things I ever imagined doing. And yet here I am.” · Dyson Chee

I had been interning at the state capitol for about one year, hoping to gain a better understanding of why polystyrene bans and other plastic legislation were failing to pass year after year. What I had learned was that instead of trying to pass this legislation at the state level, we should try the county level first. The state level had too many people who needed to agree, whereas at the county level, we had just nine councilmembers and the mayor. Bill 40 was introduced at the county level, which we hoped would give it a leg-up. 

The first few hearings for the bill faced little resistance, but that was generally what we had seen with previous plastic legislation. Then the opposition started to realize that the bill actually had a chance of passing. The plastics and food industries increased their funding of the opposition and told the community that losing plastic and polystyrene containers would result in the loss of our plate lunches and local foods. There are many viable plastic alternatives, so this was just not true, but some businesses and community members got worried. These opposition tactics were exactly what had caused previous bills to fail. Searching for a way to help, I looked around the hearing room one day and realized that there was something I could do immediately: get more young people involved using the tools I had developed through Project O.C.E.A.N.

The hearings happened on weekdays in the middle of the day, so most students couldn’t attend because of school. But we got the word out through Project O.C.E.A.N. and those who could show up did so in droves. For the students who couldn’t join in person, who were often from disadvantaged communities, we worked with them to write testimonials that were presented on their behalf. We sent out pieces of a signature scroll to 13 different schools and clubs on O‘ahu for students to sign and show their support. That 60-foot scroll was a visual representation, in addition to all the passionate people in the room, of the youth voice on this issue. This voice began to persuade the councilmembers that this wasn’t just an economic issue, and it wasn’t only about the environment—it was about protecting the future of Hawaiʻi. After Bill 40 passed, many people told me that our young voices acted as the guiding star for councilmembers when they voted. 

Dyson and friends. The youth movement is increasingly sparking change on climate issues · Dyson Chee

Expanding the youth movement

Since December 2019, when Bill 40 passed, we’ve seen similar pieces of plastics legislation make their way through council hearings in Hawaiʻi. Maui County, which comprises three islands, unanimously passed a comprehensive single-use plastics ban on April 17, 2020, which was similarly spearheaded by local youth. Our next big step is to pass similar legislation in Hawaiʻi County, also known as the Big Island. Through these efforts, we are slowly working to make Hawaiʻi a state free of single-use plastic.

From a personal perspective, I recently took part in my third OHBC, acting as a squad leader for my geographic region. Since that first meeting in 2018, this gathering has become an annual tradition for me, and one I very much look forward to. OHBC’s support was instrumental in spreading the word about Bill 40 to youth internationally. The friends I’ve made through the Ocean Heroes network are now pillars in my life: it’s so helpful to have collaboration, mentorship, and friendship with this group of like-minded leaders. 

This year however, things happened a bit differently. Like many other conferences in the time of coronavirus, the gathering was moved to a virtual setting. Spurred by the situation, we used digital platforms to connect people across a more level playing field. And as a squad leader, I was able to use tech to connect ocean activists around the world and expand their impact, contacting many who were previously out of reach. Although it was different, I think we did all we could to create an inspiring experience like the one that motivated me to build Project O.C.E.A.N. and truly embark on this journey three years ago. 

In reflecting on the current pandemic, I believe that there are many lessons we can learn through this experience that can be applied to plastic pollution and the climate crisis overall.

The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the interconnected cracks in our systems that have been there for a long time: societal inequities, environmental injustices, social injustices. We now have an opportunity to rethink and reset. There are better ways to live on this planet, and this pandemic is showing that from a new perspective. 

For all the young people who may be reading this and who are curious about starting their own efforts during this unprecedented time—whether they be ocean-focused or otherwise—my advice is this: find what you love. I learned this at OHBC and it has stuck with me ever since. If you don’t have the emotional connection to the problem, you’re not going to get anywhere. And when you find that issue, don’t be afraid to trailblaze the path of action. Your age can be a megaphone that helps share your message with the world. It can open doors that may be closed to you in ten years. It can give you the fresh perspective that makes people see issues differently. Just like on that electrifying day when we passed Bill 40, young people have a unique ability to refocus the conversation on the future. I know that together, we can return to a world of plastic-free oceans teeming with life. 

15 December, 2019 was a day of celebrations, when Mayor Kirk Caldwell signed the O‘ahu single-use plastics ban into law · Dyson Chee

Visit oceanheroes.blue and follow @OceanHeroesHQ on Instagram to learn more about future Ocean Heroes Bootcamp sessions and follow the stories of Ocean Heroes like Dyson.

Learn more about Project O.C.E.A.N. on both Instagram and Facebook, and explore the work of the Hawai’i Youth Climate Coalition, of which Dyson serves as Advocacy Director.

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Dyson Chee
Plastics activist
Ocean Heroes Network
Global youth advocacy network

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