One Bag at a Time

April 25, 2019

For her Senior Four Point project, Maddie Williams ’19 would like to see plastic bags disappear.

photo by Cait Bourgault

 

“I’m concerned about the impact on humans that plastic bags have, but my drive really comes from my concern for the environment,” she explains. “I have been an animal lover since I was very young.” For a long time she wanted to be a veterinarian, then a wildlife rehabilitator.

“I realized that a lot of the things that you come across in wildlife rehabilitation are because of human impact on the environment. And I don’t think that I would be able to stay in that field, seeing all of the systems in place by humans that are hurting wildlife and habitats.”

So Maddie wondered what she could do.

“I’ve already taken plastic out of my life,” she says. “I use glass jars and mason jars and glass Tupperware and paper wax-lined bags. For an 18-year-old, I do as much as I really feel I can.”

Then, at a bookstore in Vermont while looking at colleges, she came across a book about reducing single-use plastic in your community.

“And I was like, ‘Bethel’s pretty small. What can I do in my community?’ So I flip it open, and the first one is a bag ban. And I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s incredible. I’m going to set my sights on a bag ban.’”

She talked to the town manager and asked about initiating some sort of ordinance in Bethel. Then she went to the National Resources Council of Maine [NRCM], and with their help, organized a screening of the documentary “Bag It” at the local movie theater, The Gem, in July.

“I was definitely preaching to the choir, there. I’ll totally admit that,” she says. “But it was so amazing; I had 50-plus people show up to this event, which for an evening in Bethel is pretty extraordinary.”

Her partner on this project has been science teacher Peter Southam’s wife, Sarah. Because Maddie wasn’t 18 at the start, she found it helpful having an adult in the process, backing up what she says but not saying it for her.

“She’s been probably the best partner in this that I could ask for,” says Maddie.

At the event they projected a microscope slide that showed the level of microplastics in the Androscoggin River. It was pretty scary, she says.

“We’re in western Maine!” says Maddie. “It’s not relative to region anymore, there’s no such thing as pure water. I don’t think that was common knowledge, so I am really happy that everybody walked out of there knowing that they had learned something.”

Then it came time to actually write the ordinance, all three pages of it. She looked at other town ordinances and got information from the NRCM. She now hopes to go into policy one day, so she was thrilled to find she really enjoyed the work.

She presented it to the town Select Board, which agreed to entertain the idea of a bag ban.

“I was just a little anxious when Maddie came before the Select Board and made her proposal,” says Peter Southam, who serves as chair. “On one hand, I was very proud of her for following through on this ordinance. On the other, it represented a collision of two of my worlds, and I wanted her to represent her school, and her age group well. Fortunately, as expected, she did a wonderful job, winning over the board, and the room of adults to whom she was presenting. Maddie has tremendous determination.”

Peter says he later ran into one of the members of the Ordinance Review Committee who spoke enthusiastically about all he was learning about plastic after calls to the Dunkin’ Donuts national office and other businesses in town.

“She has certainly gotten the ball rolling,” says Southam. “It will be exciting to see how this all plays out.”

The path has not been an easy one so far. It can be very expensive, she explains. Some businesses report saving money, but others worry how they can compete with other towns if they don’t have the convenience of plastic bags.

“I definitely expected pushback, but I’ve learned a lot as far as what their concerns are. It’s no secret that Bethel is a pretty tourism-based town as far as businesses go,” she says. “You have three of the four seasons that are highly known for tourism. So it’s hard when you’re not just changing a local community mindset, because you can’t change every mindset of every tourist that comes here. Whether they’re prepared to have a plastic bag or not is out of our control.”

Change is going to be hard, she admits. She has reached out to businesses that are willing to support the change so that people can hear it from a business perspective. She and Sarah have also enlisted the help of a local group known as Take Action Bethel to write letters to the newspaper.

She’s also prepared to still go the petition route if necessary to get the ordinance on the referendum in June.

She hopes to work with the elementary and middle schools in Bethel to have a design contest for a reusable bag. With a grant through NRCM, they can purchase reusable bags with the winning design and give them to businesses to give out, or possibly hand them out at a town event.

“I genuinely feel that if people fully understand the depth of the matter that they’re not going to do nothing. It’s so imperative to any concern you could have. If you’re a business, plastic pollution threatens businesses; it threatens industries; it’s threatening our economy.”

town meeting photo

Maddie presenting at a town meeting with Sara Southam

And one of the biggest things that contributes to plastic pollution is single-use plastic bags.

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