FREEPORT — The recent move by Gov. Mills to sign a bill enacting a statewide ban on polystyrene packaging is welcome news. We have been following the issue of foam food packaging for a while now – 30 years actually. As 8- and 9-year-olds with an emerging awareness of environmental problems, we helped persuade the town of Freeport to adopt a ban on polystyrene – the first town in the state, and one of the first in the nation. With this new ban (which takes effect in 2021), Maine becomes the first state in the nation to enact this measure to address plastic pollution.

In 1988, the six of us (plus a handful of others) – including Kirsten Nunery, Bridget Dornbach, Eliza Damone and Ellen Stewart – were elementary students at the public George C. Soule School in Freeport. We learned about the importance of the ozone layer and how chlorofluorocarbons – at that time used to manufacture polystyrene foam – were thinning the ozone layer. We also learned about animals dying from consumption of plastic bags, Styrofoam and other waste.

On a bus ride home from school one afternoon, a few of us shared our deep worries about what our future would hold. We imagined a world where the ozone hole meant that people couldn’t go outside given high risks of cancer and where food availability and marine ecosystems were devastated. At the suggestion of one of the mothers, Kathleen Sullivan, a clinical social worker, we got together to share our fears. And in that initial meeting, we decided to transform our fears into action and invited other classmates to join us. We formed Concerns About Kids’ Environment, or CAKE. We benefited from thoughtful teachers, engaged parents, like Judith Brown, and other community members who listened to us and supported our leadership.

We put our sights on eliminating polystyrene packaging from our town. From our research, we knew that this material doesn’t biodegrade, it ends up in our oceans and it is produced from petroleum, a nonrenewable resource. We proposed a ban to the Freeport Town Council, a move that brought us head to head with McDonald’s. We marched down Main Street and picketed McDonald’s. Two of us, in our little sailor suit dresses, debated a corporate polystyrene lobbyist on the “Today” show in New York. And McDonald’s shipped in a corporate lawyer to testify in front of the Town Council – adjacent to the testimonies of many third-, fourth- and fifth-graders.

In 1990, despite attempts to thwart our efforts, Freeport became Maine’s first municipality to ban polystyrene food packaging. Later that year, McDonald’s announced plans to phase out polystyrene packaging nationwide. Fifteen other Maine communities have since implemented similar bans.

Our involvement with CAKE was formative for each of us. The mothers who helped us (and collaborated with us on this op-ed) are grandmothers now. Many of us students have turned 40. And several of us have pursued careers influenced by our involvement with the polystyrene ban. We work in marine science, law, education, cultural heritage, social work and climate change adaptation.

As we look back on our experience with CAKE, it’s clear to us that young people can provide three urgently needed gifts. First, a clear call to do the right thing and an unequivocal picture of what’s right. Second, a sense of possibility, along with an ability to see a different future – the very seeds of innovation and creative problem solving. Third, a pathway to intergenerational equity. Decisions today will affect those that come after us – our children (who cannot vote) and generations to come (whose voices we cannot yet hear). Combined, these three gifts can be transformational.

We need environmental leadership more than ever. This polystyrene ban is an important step in that direction. We hope to see many more bold acts taken by our elected officials. Here’s a hint: Look to the voices of young people because, chances are, they are ahead of their time. But let’s not leave these burdens to youth.


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