Less than two weeks ago, Maine showed up on the national stage as the first state to adopt a statewide ban on polystyrene packaging, thanks to the leadership of our legislators and Gov. Janet Mills. It has been 30 years since we, as 8- and 9- year olds, helped persuade the town of Freeport to ban polystyrene. Freeport was the first town in Maine and one of the first in the nation to do so. The leadership of youth today, such as Greta Thunberg, who has become a global leader advocating for urgent climate action, reminds us of our own environmental activism that started at a young age.
In 1988, we were elementary school 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, polystyrene foam 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 C.A.K.E. We benefited from thoughtful teachers and community members who listened to us and supported our leadership.
Our research led us to focus on eliminating polystyrene packaging from our town. We had learned that this material doesn’t biodegrade, it ends up in our oceans, and that 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 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. Seventeen other Maine towns have since implemented similar bans.
Our involvement with C.A.K.E. was formative for each of us. The mothers who helped us are grandmothers now, with heightened awareness about the future of their little loved ones. 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 C.A.K.E, 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. As Greta Thunberg says, “It’s sometimes annoying when people say, ‘Oh you children, you young people are the hope. You will save the world … I think it would be helpful if you could help us just a little bit.”
Anna Brown and Sara Randall, both of Freeport, are climate adaptation experts. Kirsten Nunery of Winthrop, Kathleen Sullivan of Freeport, Ellen Stewart of Unity, Eliza Damone of Freeport, Bridget Dornbach of Freeport and Judith Brown of Freeport collaborated on this piece. All were members of Concerns About Kids’ Environment, along with others. The group worked to secure the state’s first ban on polystyrene containers, in Freeport in 1990.