Since 1990, Freeport has barred the use of polystyrene food containers after an effort led by third- and fourth-graders.
On Jan. 1, 1990, after a determined – and nationally recognized – effort on the part of environmentally conscious elementary school students, an ordinance banning Styrofoam (polystyrene) food containers took effect in Freeport.
En route to the Town Council passage of the ordinance the previous July, those third- and fourth-graders stood up to high-powered representatives of industry and won. During their hard-fought campaign, Anna Brown, Bridget Sullivan-Stevens, Katie York, Kirsten Nunery and Eliza Stewart formed “CAKE” – Concerns About Kids’ Environment – a group that grew to 30 members, whose goal was to ban the use of non-biodegradable material. They debated with officials from McDonald’s in the Town Council chambers. And Brown and Sullivan-Stevens were interviewed by Bryant Gumbel on NBC’s “Today” show. Both were students at the old Soule School in South Freeport, now operating as L’Ecole Francaise du Maine. Brown was a fourth-grader, Sullivan-Stevens a third-grader.
Now, as town officials consider another student-led environmental initiative – a ban on the use of disposable plastic bags at Freeport businesses – members of the town’s Recycling and Solid Waste Committee are working on a 25th anniversary commemoration of the CAKE kids. Committee member Sandy Thompson, with a big assist from Freeport Community Library historian Vickie Lane, has been hard at work archiving the effort behind the Styrofoam ban. The committee is planning a commemorative event, Thompson said, and was to discuss that at its March 16 meeting.
“Maybe we’ll do an event at the library, and there’s talk about doing something in the schools,” Thompson said.
Thompson distributed copies of an article she’s written, “25th Anniversary of Styrofoam Ban: Freeport Students Making a Difference,” at last month’s committee meeting.
“I was able to put the story together from newspaper archives,” Thompson said. “I had been reading on the Internet about Styrofoam and seeing that Freeport was the first town in the state to have a ban.”
The connection between the Styrofoam ban and the effort to ban the use of plastic bags is not lost on the Recycling and Solid Waste Committee.
“The girls last year used the Styrofoam ordinance as a foundation for their proposal on plastic bags,” Thompson said. “We want to focus on the reduce part of ‘reduce, reuse and recycle.’”
In her Stryofoam ban article, Thompson wrote that Styrofoam packing is on the decline, as consumers demand packaging that is more sustainable and with fewer health impacts.
“However, 25 years ago, it was essentially ‘David versus Goliath’: a group of elementary school students advocating for a change and a well-established corporation defending the status quo,” she wrote.
As part of their Styrofoam project, the CAKE students conducted a litter survey on Main Street. They collected 165 pieces of litter and found that half was Styrofoam. CAKE students met weekly, and made presentations to the Legislature and to the Town Council.
“Today,” Thompson continued, “safe alternatives exist for Styrofoam.”
Also today, Bridget Sullivan-Stevens is now Bridget Dornbach, having married Chris Dornbach, and she is living in Freeport again. While her name has changed, her dedication to a clean environment holds firm. Dornbach, 35, a lawyer, studied environmental science at Colorado College after she graduated high school at Waynflete School. She and her family, which includes a son and a daughter, live in a “net-zero” house that Chris Dornbach built. Net-zero homes generate more electricity in a year than they use.
“It’s a cause I still believe in,” said Dornbach, who has a solo practice in real estate and mediation law cases. “I’ve been working on climate-change issues. It’s something we have to address for the next generation,” she said about her environmental concerns.
Twenty-six years ago, she and Brown had to address a national television audience, and go up against a high-powered representative of the corporate world. Some of the memories of that historic year in Freeport have faded over time, Dornbach admits. But not all of them.
“I was extremely nervous,” Dornbach said. “It was nerve-wracking, but ultimately a great adventure. My mother still has the video.”
Dornbach’s mother, Kathleen Sullivan, made the trip to New York with the girls for the “Today” appearance.
“It was quite remarkable,” said Sullivan, who is involved in planning the 25th anniversary events. “There was a man from Dow Chemical who debated them on a television screen. These third- and fourth-graders were debating him.”
It’s the man from Dow Chemical who ended up changing, Sullivan said.
“Fifteen years ago, the man said in the Wall Street Journal that he had debated these girls on the ‘Today’ show and that changed his life,” Sullivan said. “He became an environmentalist.”
Dornbach said she looks forward to perhaps seeing Brown for the first time in many years, and others who were involved in the Styrofoam ban.
“It would be really nice,” she said. “We’ve all grown and changed.”
Bridget Dornbach, who lives in Freeport, was one of five elementary school students who pushed the town to ban the use of Styrofoam food containers, an ordinance that took effect 25 years ago.Courtesy photo