The London-born educator and conservationist is part way through a cycling tour of New Zealand, spreading the word to Kiwi kids about the downsides of single use plastics.
It hasn’t been easy, she says – there are a lot of hills to climb.
“The hills are kind of killing me, but that’s OK, each hill I just kind of look at the next bit, I don’t think about making it all the way to the top, I think OK, I can get to that post, then I’m doing all right.
“Like anything in life, when you look at the whole picture, sometimes things are a bit overwhelming, but if you just take it one step at a time, that’s the way to go isn’t it?”
Indeed, this mindset is what’s informing her approach to the cycling tour, which was born of a deep-seated frustration at the way humans are polluting their waterways.
“I started doing this because I spent six years working in marine conservation and I’ve just seen things that I don’t accept as OK.
"I’ve seen first-hand the effects of humans and plastic pollution ... and seen what it actually does to wildlife and I’m just not OK with it.
“What’s the point of studying [animals] and learning more about them, if they’re not actually going to be around for long enough to protect because of what we’re doing to the ocean?” Bowles explains.
“I just kind of got to the point where I just thought, whilst I felt it was very important work....I just kind of felt like that wasn’t enough, and actually, it’s more urgent to change human plastic consumer behaviour so that there’s less ending up in the sea in the first place.”
Bowles has been travelling around New Zealand for about two weeks and has spoken to between 800 and 1000 children.
Already, she is being recognised as she cycles between towns, with children telling their parents about “the lady with the bamboo bike” and her mission.
“You can exactly see that all of these children are going home and not only being plastic clever themselves but turning other people on to being plastic clever, which is just really, really amazing.”
The primary school teacher says conservation has always been a part of her teaching, and was the catalyst for her two-wheeled mission.
“Throughout teaching, I’ve always tried to make [students] very aware of conservation projects that kind of need attention but also, getting the children thinking about the changes that they want to see in the world and how they can make those things happen.
“[My class was] having a discussion one afternoon, where one of the boys said to me, ‘miss, if you keep telling us that we can change the world, and you care about the ocean so much, why are you sitting here in the classroom, why aren’t you doing anything about it?’
“And it just absolutely floored me, because I just wasn’t expecting it, and everything that came out of my mouth just sounded like a really lame excuse!”
She vacillated for a while between her inner conservationist and her adult mind, certain that the solution couldn’t be that simple, until the light bulb switched on in her head.
“Actually, it completely is that simple...why aren’t I doing that?” she asked herself, and began preparing for her cycling tour.
Bowles describes with pride how she made the bicycle herself, at the Bamboo Bicycle Club in London.
“The whole message about building a bike out of something sustainable was quite important to me...to be travelling around on a kind of low carbon footprint vehicle.
“So I’m travelling around on something that I’ve made. It’s a piece of grass that I’m riding around the world!
"At the end of its life, I can chip down the frame and that can be composted, which I think is a really cool message to send.
“It’s got a dynamo hub on it, so I’m also making my own electricity as I go, so I can charge up my phone as I’m going, I’ve got a couple of air plants on my basket, so I’m actually making fresh air as I go,” she enthuses, adding that her class provided input on the bike too, suggesting the addition of the air plants.
New Zealand is the first stop on Bowles’ tour.
She has local friends and feels safe in the country, having previously lived in Queenstown for several years.
Nevertheless, she admits the idea of the long distance tour was daunting to begin with.
Her mission keeps her going, however, as she visits each school to peddle her message.
“On my PowerPoint presentation, I start with talking about the animals in the sea, kind of talking about what experience they have.
"A lot of children, especially in the cities, are fairly removed from the ocean, so I talk about the animals that I used to work with, which were primarily manta rays, whale sharks, turtles, other endangered species, and I feel like all children have seen Finding Nemo, Finding Dory, Moana, so even if they don’t have first-hand experience with these animals, they have known them,” Bowles explains.
“So I start off...talking about the animals themselves, and getting them really engaged with the animals, then I go into talking about what it was that I was seeing in the water that bothered me, whether it was entanglement with fishing nets or lines, or seeing firsthand animals that are eating plastic...or turtles or seabirds that have died because they’ve ingested plastic.”
From there, she moves into how one person can make a difference, linking this to the process of creating her bicycle, to help the students to understand how to overcome challenges and perhaps see her subject in light of their own experiences.
“Other children can see how they can really make a difference and understand that actually, they are incredibly powerful humans for affecting change, and I think children are much more powerful at affecting change than a) they realise, and b) than adults!
“So it’s really about getting them pumped up to realise that if they go into a cafe and ask for no straw in their drink and say it really loudly, with conviction, and say 'I don’t want a straw because I don’t want my straw to end up in the sea and damage turtles', then they can literally affect change through other people.”
Bowles says it makes sense to take her message to students, the next generation of change makers.
“I really strongly believe ... children are going to inherit our earth that we’ve done a fairly good job of messing up, but also they’re the future generation of ocean guardians, so they’re exactly the people that need to change their habits and their behaviour, and I think they’re great ambassadors of change.”
Bowles focuses on single use plastics in her presentation, illustrating their damaging longevity to help kids to grasp the concept.
“People talk about ocean plastics and very often don’t really understand what the issues are.
"The problem is that plastic is built to be very durable and to last a life time.
"For example, it takes 450 years for a plastic water bottle to break down and disappear.
"Those kinds of statistics are really frightening.
“When you tell children that every plastic bag they’ve ever touched is still here on the planet, and every plastic water bottle that’s ever been made is still here on the planet, unless it’s been burned, and if it’s burned, then that’s releasing harmful chemicals into the air ... I think that’s the sort of thing to keep in mind.”
She teaches children the three Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle – as well as a fourth R: refuse single-use plastics.
“In terms of what people can do in schools, it’s just encouraging that mentality and that thought process of 'do I need to use that ... and if I really, really, really need to use it, can I then work my way through [the three Rs]?
“Kids are so great, they come up with so many amazing ideas very quickly – you’ll have kids coming up with solutions for not just single use plastics but for multiple use plastics as well.
"It’s really exciting to work with children because they’ve got so many ideas.”
Some of the schools that she has visited have since gone on to assign beach cleans or park cleans as homework.
“It’s been amazing, they sent me...photos of lots of families going out doing beach cleans at the weekend, which is just brilliant isn’t it? That’s the dream!
“When you get kids who are saying, I’m going to go into a cafe and ask them if they can use paper straws instead of plastic straws, or if they can stop using plastic bags, then that for me...makes it all worthwhile, all of those horrible hills!” she laughs.
To learn more about this brilliant bike ride, go to www.treadlighter.org.