A first for the Alumni Spotlight column, Phoebe Colvin-Oehmig recently returned home after attending the Fall 2015 Gap Year program at The Island School. She graduated from Waynflete in Portland, Maine and had been inspired to study plastics since she first read an inscribed copy of Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam and the Science of Ocean Motion by Loree Griffin Burns at the age of 13. Her interests were only furthered during her studies at Waynflete and so when given the chance to study plastics during her nine weeks at The Island School, Phoebe jumped at the opportunity. Inspired by what she experienced and learned during her time on campus at The Island School, Phoebe returned home and wrote the following about what she has accomplished at home and what she will be up to in the near future:
With my new knowledge, I knew I needed to do something. I returned home to Maine with a mission to eliminate Styrofoam and plastic bags in Brunswick. I joined “Bring Your Own Bag Midcoast,” a local grassroots environmental advocacy group whose mission is to promote reusable bags and containers in Midcoast Maine. In an effort to raise awareness and to educate the public, I began writing letters to newspaper editors in which I highlighted the equally hazardous environmental effects of both paper and plastic bags, as well as the health risks involved with plastic. Not only are plastics harmful to Maine’s seafood industry by causing premature deaths of marine animals by clogging their digestive systems, they also poison our seafood. Plastics act like sponges, soaking up toxins in the ocean. These, toxins, called Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), enter marine animals when they ingest micro plastics. These toxins, including DDT, dioxins and other pesticides, reside in their tissues. When a fish swallows plastics, and a lobster eats that fish, and a lobster-man catches the lobster, and we consume the lobster, we eat not just the meat of the lobster, but all the toxins residing in the lobster’s tissue from the plastic the fish ate.
Plastics picked up after a trawl
While people seem to better understand the hazards of plastic bags, paper bags seem environmentally benign. However, the reality is paper bags are just as environmentally damaging. Over its lifetime, one paper bag produces 70% more greenhouse gas emissions and 50 times more water pollutants than a plastic bag, increasing atmospheric acidification and ozone depletion. Paper bags also leave a greater carbon footprint than plastic; it takes the same amount of fuel to ship eight plastic bags as one paper bag. As a local grocery chain stated, “It takes us six deliveries of paper to bring the same number of bags to stores as when we use plastic, with all the fuel use and emissions that go along with that. The production of paper had 4 times the energy and global warming implications of plastic.”Microplastics in a sieve
At a December Brunswick Town Council meeting, our group, Bring Your Own Bag Midcoast, proposed an ordinance to ban Styrofoam. The council room was overflowing with supporters for a Styrofoam ban as we presented the environmental and health issues caused by Styrofoam and showed the minimal cost difference between Styrofoam products and other alternatives. After several testimonies, the members of the Town Council unanimously voted to begin the process of banning Styrofoam. Next on our agenda is to implement a five-cent fee on paper and plastic bags in stores with greater than two percent food sales in order to encourage shoppers to bring reusable bags. This plan would copy other bag ordinances, which have been deemed successful. However, with publicity come detractors. I have had to rebut press written in opposition to my efforts. But I was also contacted by the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM), which offered to fund our mission—further evidence that ripples spread. In addition to writing newspaper articles and blog pieces for my high school and NRCM, I have filmed a public service announcement promoting reusable bags, which will soon air on a local television channel. I plan to major in environmental studies and continue advocacy as I continue my education.
Phoebe speaking at her local town council meeting
I will be returning this spring to the Cape Eleuthera Institute as an intern for the Flats Conservation and Ecology team to continue researching marine plastics. I stepped away from comfort this year, from my familiar lifestyle and the expected path from high school into college. I learned to consider outside myself, to live sustainably for the future, to look globally but also to know that action at the local level can bring about real change.