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Journal of the San Juan Islands' 2009 Citizen of the Year: Styrofoam ban crusader Doris Estabrooks

Since 1941, when researchers in Dow’s Chemical Physics Lab found a way to make foamed polystyrene, Styrofoam has become a part of American daily life.

You’ll find Styrofoam used as insulation, and in craft and floral products. Styrofoam keeps docks afloat. It’s used under roads and structures to prevent soil disturbances caused by freezing and thawing. It’s used for product packaging. It’s used for food and drink.

After nearly 70 years of Styrofoam use, Earth — and, by extension, each one of us — is paying a big price.

Styrofoam is difficult to recycle and it never deteriorates. It breaks down into smaller pieces that litter our beaches, oceans and streets. Land and marine wildlife often die after eating Styrofoam pieces that they’ve mistaken as food.

There is currently no meaningful recycling of Styrofoam used in food service, partly because of contamination from food residue.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies styrene, which is used in the manufacture of Styrofoam, as a potential human carcinogen. Styrene is believed to leach from food containers that are heated, as in a microwave. According to the agency, exposure to styreme may affect the central nervous system.

“Think about the millions of Styrofoam cups eternally lying dormant in parks, cities, and other places where we now see litter,” Howard University asked in a report. “Then think about if it would have made a difference to the environment had these cups been paper instead.”

Doris Estabrooks of San Juan Island has dared to imagine a world without Styrofoam. Since 2004, the retired school secretary and antiques appraiser has been collecting data about the harmful effects of Styrofoam on the environment and human health.

Armed with information and determination, she introduced local restaurants to biodegradable food containers, invited noted marine researcher Charles Moore here to conduct a compelling public lecture about ocean pollution, and gathered more than 1,000 petition signatures calling for local government to take action.

Estabrooks’s work compelled the Friday Harbor Town Council to ban Styrofoam food to-go containers within the town limits; the County Council approve a countywide ban on Tuesday. She convinced King’s Market to stop carrying Styrofoam coolers and stop using Styrofoam in its deli.

Because of Estabrooks’s work, the public is better educated about the need to reduce and reuse. And her work reinforces the message that the individual can make a difference.

For her work, Doris Estabrooks is The Journal of the San Juan Islands’ Citizen of the Year for 2009.

Won their respect
Although Estabrooks didn’t win County Councilman Rich Peterson’s vote for a Styrofoam ban, she won his respect.

“I’m still going to vote against it because I think an ordinance is unnecessary,” Peterson said last week. His daughter’s restaurant, Rocky Bay Cafe, was among the first to switch from Styrofoam to paper to-go containers.

“I absolutely admire her. She is incredibly passionate about this,” he said. “I’ve tried to explain to her my philosophy, explain why I won’t vote for an ordinance when we don’t need one. She’s convinced we need one. I think she gets why I’m opposed to it, but she wants six votes from the council. I know I’m going to break her heart and I hate it.”

Tuesday, five of six County Council members voted for the ordinance. Like the town’s ordinance, it will go into effect on April 22, Earth Day. Exempted are containers that have been filled and sealed by the supplier. Businesses that violate the ban will be subject to fines.

In November 2006, San Francisco approved a similar ban. By June 2008, 400 of the city’s 4,500 restaurants were found using Styrofoam packaging. Most of those restaurants came into compliance and only eight were fined.

Estabrooks is confident the local ban will be just as effective.

“I have so much information” about the hazards of Styrofoam, she said. “What started me on this was reading how marine birds were all dying, and then I started reading about what it was doing to humans. The more I read, the more I realized something had to be done about it.”

Estabrooks’s work began in 2004. She dines out frequently and began talking to other diners in restaurants. She learned that others shared her feelings about Styrofoam. “They would talk about how they would refuse to accept a Styrofoam food container and would ask that their food be placed in aluminum foil.”

She did research on biodegradable food containers, collected samples and took them to local restaurants. Her campaign had begun.

‘Lady with a mission’
Doris Carr Estabrooks was born in Missouri in 1922. Her father died when she was 3, and her sister, 20 years her senior, helped raise her.

Growing up near one of the finest journalism schools in the nation — University of Missouri at Columbia — she dreamed of being a reporter. She was involved in the literary club at Joplin High School and, at age 17, won an interview with Eleanor Roosevelt during the first lady’s whistle-stop visit to Joplin.

A journalism career wasn’t in the cards. She married Frank Estabrooks, who would become a supervisor at McDonnell Douglas. She became a school secretary, had a son, Chip, and daughter, Beth, and got involved in her children’s activities.

“Any time we needed anything, she was willing to do it,” Beth Spaulding said. “We needed a Brownie leader, she was there. She’s always had to have her mind on something. And when she put her mind to something, she could do it.”

In the 1980s, Estabrooks became interested in antiques and, without any formal training, educated herself and became a respected and well-paid appraiser.

Frank and Doris Estabrooks moved to the island from Columbia, Mo., in 1997; their daughter is a teacher here, their son-in-law a real estate agent.

Doris was widowed in 2001. “She had this period of time where she wasn’t involved in things,” Beth Spaulding said. Then in 2004, her mother became interested in environmental issues. “She was excited she could do that,” she said.

Carrie Lacher, who on Jan. 1 became the first woman mayor in Friday Harbor’s 100-year history, said Estabrooks is a role model – for women, for older citizens, and for individuals who doubt they can take on a giant of an issue and make a difference.

“I thought it was kind of unlikely for a senior citizen to be so involved in an environmental issue,” Lacher said. “On the other hand, she was following in the footsteps of the great suffragettes, and you didn’t want to get in that way of those ladies.

She added, “What’s great about Doris is she was steady. She kept on her issue, she slowly got Friends of the San Juans and the Anti-Litter Initiative involved. It’s a testament to how we can accomplish things without fingerpointing, without the ‘tea party’ kind of thing. I think people respond to that civility and mutual respect.”

Estabrooks may be civil and respectful, but she’s also well-researched and persistent.

“She’s a lady with a mission,” said Jana Marks, office manager of Friends of the San Juans. “She’s stuck it out, plodding and pushing and pushing and plodding for a few years now. She keeps going at it, that’s why it’s gotten through. She’s made us all want to do it too.”

Marks added, “There’s a whole body of information out there that the general public doesn’t know, and there’s nobody out there stepping up to protect the general public. She made it her mission to focus on this one thing: We have to tell people this isn’t healthy for them. That’s been her focus, her purpose, for getting that message out there. She has been an inspiration.”

Marks said Estabrooks, by her own research and persistence in keeping the issue in front of the public, kept the campaign on track.

“If something had happened to her, the rest of us might have fallen away. She showed leadership. She kept bringing in the information, she wasn’t sitting idle and expecting others to do the work. She said ‘This stuff isn’t good for us, and look at all this data.’ She didn’t want to ignore it.”

In response to Estabrooks’s teachings, the Town Council in 2007 declared town-owned buildings to be “Styrofoam-Free Zones,” committing the town to purchasing and using products that do not contain Styrofoam. The ban applies only to town-owned buildings, such as Town Hall.

Two years later, the Town Council approved a town-wide ban on Styrofoam food containers. The San Juan County Council followed with a ban on Tuesday.

Estabrooks said, “It satisfies me like nothing else to know I did a little good.”

Today, the 88-year-old grandmother of four is expanding her research into other ways that the island can move away from being a disposable society. She is collecting information on biodegradable six-pack rings. And she is an advocate for stainless steel billy pots as containers for lunches and to-go meals, rather than paper containers or plastic sacks.

She’s also a supporter of animal rights, and adopts rescued dogs.

Her advice to other would-be crusaders: “Do your research and stick with it. It might take years.”

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