From left, Caroline Leal, Gabe Sarno and Billy Bachelder put up a sign urging York voters to vote "yes" on a townwide polystyrene ban. Credit: Submitted photo courtesy of The York Weekly

York High School seniors Caroline Leal and Hannah Gennaro will be voting for the first time in town elections next month, able to cast their ballot in favor of an initiative the two have been championing for the better part of year — a townwide ban on polystyrene food and beverage containers.

Selectmen unanimously endorsed the proposed ordinance in February after several public hearings. It will appear as Question 3 on the special general referendum ballot before voters on May 18.

“You never know who’s going to show up to vote, but I’m feeling optimistic,” said Leal. “There’s a lot of support in the community for this.”

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For Gennaro, a vote for Question 3 is a vote for the next generation. “It’s our future. It pains me when people tell me they don’t believe in this issue. I don’t really get it. Plastics are choking us, and it is me and my friends who are going to be living in this world.”

If Question 3 passes, the ordinance would require retail establishments to stop selling food or drinks in packages and containers made of polystyrene — better known by the trademark name Styrofoam. Retailers also can’t sell polystyrene products, like coffee cups or plates. The town, schools and York Hospital are also prohibited from using these products. Exempted are nonprofit and religious establishments.

[Maine becomes first state to ban single-use foam containers]

The Code Enforcement office will enforce the ordinance, which begins with verbal warning, followed by written warning, then a written notice of violation. There is a penalty of $50 for the first offense and $100 for each subsequent offense.

If approved by voters, the law would not take effect until May 2020 to give businesses time to use their current stock of products and plan to purchase either paper or compostable products instead. York would become the 10th municipality in Maine to pass polystyrene bans.

The Legislature has passed a law banning the material for use statewide, but that won’t go into effect until 2021.

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There are several other differences between the proposed ordinance in York and the state legislation. Particularly, the state bill exempts hospitals from participation, while York’s requires compliance from York Hospital, which has instituted its own efforts to reduce polystyrene.

“I wish it didn’t have the hospital exemption, but I understand it,” said resident Victoria Simon, a mentor to Leal, Gennaro and fellow YHS students Daphne Gignac, Billy Bachelder and Gabe Sarno. “It’s great that Maine could be the first or second in the country to ban polystyrene. But ultimately, I believe people I will stop using these products.”

[The way Maine foods are packaged will have to change by 2021]

Leal and Gennaro are the third wave of YHS students to push for a ban, which started picking up steam in 2017 when 2018 graduate Sophia Eytel became involved. They have worked with Town Manager Steve Burns on the ordinance’s wording, informed themselves of the scientific data and spoken to local groups like the Rotary Club, chamber of commerce and the Masons.

“We are both very, very busy students,” said Gennaro. “I play three sports, Caroline plays two sports. But this is one of the most important things I’ve ever done in my life. So it’s absolutely worth it.”

The two said they were struck by the nature of polystyrene, which breaks into smaller and smaller pieces and can drift on the air into the ocean, where the particles can become so small they mimic phytoplankton. “Scientists estimate that there will be more plastic than plankton in the ocean by 2050. That really stuck with me,” said Leal.

[More Maine towns make transition to life without plastic bags]

Polystyrene is not recycled in Maine and so is often landfilled, they said.

With regard to businesses, the two agree it might cost more for them to use compostable or paper products, but they believe as more customers insist on a non-polystyrene container those costs will decrease. “It’s difficult because there are financial costs, but you have to realize you’re paying now or when there’s a bigger issue and the environment is severely impacted,” said Leal.

At an informational meeting with Greater York Region Chamber of Commerce members, President Holly Roberts told the students that chamber officials are “hearing from both sides. Some are very pro and some are against it because of the expense and inconvenience.” Currently, Stage Neck Inn, York Harbor Inn, Stone’s Throw Restaurant, First Hill restaurant and Anthony’s Food Shop use alternatives to polystyrene.

[Will York’s plastic bag ban actually help the environment?]

“We use biodegradable containers and hope other businesses will support the effort to eliminate polluting polystyrene in the town of York,” Stone’s Throw owner Joe Lipton said in a recent letter to the editor.

The proposal has had one consistent opponent who came to the public hearings and chamber meeting. Steve Hirshfield, a retired chemical industry executive, said when compared to paper products, manufacturing of polystyrene products is more energy efficient. Because of its light weight, it costs less in fuel to transport; and he said the packaging reduces food borne illness.

[Interactive map: These are the Maine towns that have banned plastic bags]

“If we are truly serious about the environment, expanded polystyrene food service products should not be banned. It costs less, it performs better and is as safe as any alternate material,” he said at a public hearing. But he did not deny it degrades, and that has been the key argument made by Leal, Gennaro and Simon.

“People don’t see impact of pollution on their everyday lives,” said Gennaro. “Because they don’t see polystyrene breaking down, they don’t really understand its impact. Look at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s all plastics. That’s being ingested by fish and entering our system when we eat that fish. And that patch is going to keep growing until we do something about it.”