December 2019

5 Drinks with: Michelle Meissen, Palmetto Ocean Conservancy

Author: Barry Kaufman | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

She’s Drinking: Tito’s and Tonic
I’m Drinking: Westbrook White Thai

Michelle Meissen hasn’t been in the Lowcountry long, but already she’s had a giant impact. The California native and avid diver established Palmetto Ocean Conservancy not long after her venture East, helping raise awareness for environmental issues and leading youth-centric workshops to examine vital issues facing our ecosystem.

Locally, you may know her as the force behind the “Go Strawless” campaign. For her latest venture, she’s taking aim at another insidious bit of plastic waste—the common bottle cap. For the past few months, POC and their partners have been collecting caps with the intention of building four different works of public art in four different municipalities.

Like the straws, they may represent just a small part of the hazards facing the environment. But small things in great enough numbers can add up to something huge, as these works of art hope to prove.

Barry Kaufman: How long have you been working on collecting plastic bottle caps?
Michelle Meissen: This has been in the works since March, right after the straw campaign. I wanted to do something to raise more awareness. There were a few voices online after the campaign saying, “the straw is an insignificant piece of material, we have so many pressing issues to be concerned about.”
This is another individual product that people think is small and insignificant, but it’s a very strong plastic and we don’t recycle them. So here we are tossing it away and we are supposedly recycling the bottles.

BK: They can only recycle the bottles?
MM: Right now, it’s sort of a gray area. I talked to a couple of county officials, and they’re working very hard to expand the recycling system and eliminate waste, but it’s not going to happen in a one-year timeframe. Realistically, it’s going to happen in five years at best. We need to do something now, finding alternative options until there’s a solution.

So, I went to my board members and pitched them on this idea of collecting bottle caps to keep them out of our landfills. It would be nice to have a magic wand we could wave to wish it away, but we don’t have that capacity. So, what’s going to happen to all that waste? It’s going to go to landfills. And we saw what happened with Able Contracting: it burned, there were toxins in the air … it’s a bleak situation. That scared everyone in that community. People couldn’t breathe.

BK: Setting something like this up has to have taken some partnership.
MM: There’s no way that I could do this on my own. It takes community involvement to launch a project of this size and scale. You’re talking about 768 square feet of structure, 125 caps per square foot, so at least 96,000 caps total. The schools have been tremendous. Okatie Elementary collected a little over 13,000 caps. Then you had St. Gregory the Great Catholic School who collected about the same. Last March, the Cross Schools collected about 14,000 to 15,000 caps. Hilton Head Prep collected 4-5,000. All these schools are collecting caps because they want to be part of a change.

This year, I said let’s do something on a larger scale because what started out as one structure is now going to be four structures in four municipalities.

BK: Tell me a little bit about these structures.
MM: Each one is going to be a huge free-standing octagonal piece, with each individual panel featuring a different species representing air, land and water. We’re trying to incorporate what’s valued in the Lowcountry and within each municipality. We want to give each community as well as tourists some insights on what we’re trying to protect from plastic.

BK: Do you have the sites picked out for them yet?
MM: Bluffton Town Manager Marc Orlando is thinking about a place near the new Kroger in Bluffton. I think they’re planning on building a park there and that’s where they’re thinking. It’s a really great location. And on Hilton Head, last time I spoke to Jenn McEwan and with the mayor, they were thinking about the new Coligny Park. They needed the artist’s layout first. Now that they have that, we can move forward. You have to be careful to find an artist who can deliver what you want.

BK: I know you’re still confirming a few local artists, but you’ve announced that Amos Hummell will be among those working on this. What was his reaction when you pitched this to him?
MM: He was intrigued by the challenge. When you’re dealing with an art piece and you don’t know the logistics, you have to be able to work together as a group to execute on it. It’s like working with the community. If I don’t have their help, there’s no project. That’s why I wanted to use a local artist; that’s why I wanted to work with schools. I wanted them to see the whole vision, the whole process of being able to accumulate all this waste and know where it’s going otherwise.

BK: What partnerships have you developed for this project beyond schools?
MM: We’re working with the Hilton Head Area Homebuilders Association, and we’ve set up collection points at Sippin’ Cow, Southern Barrel, both Bluffton and Hilton Head libraries, Sea Smiles Pediatric Dentistry…. There’s a huge list of all these companies and organizations that are collecting. The community is really coming together to collect them. We have so many people who want to see change, but they don’t know what to do. So, they’re starting with these small items that are making a lot of noise in the community and making beautiful art in the process.

BK: If someone is just collecting plastic bottle caps, they can bring them to one of these places?
MM: The schools would love them; they’re working on incentives. The principal of St Francis started an incentive where the first grade that produced 50,000 caps in one month, he was going to take them to the Charleston Aquarium. He didn’t realize they’re going to produce as much as they did. They had me come in and do a presentation and I had 250 kids who had collected over 61,000 caps in less than one month.
The presentation is so they have an idea of why we’re doing this: because it’s accumulating waste. I tell them to look at those barrels filled with plastic bottle caps and think about what’s attached to that. It’s about trying to create a visualization of what we need to do to make life better.

BK: Where on earth are you storing all these caps?
MM: All the caps are being collected and stored at the County Office on Benton Rd. You should actually see that. There are tons of barrels of caps. Beaufort County is one of our partners; they’re collecting from the schools and POC is collecting from individual businesses.

BK: So, what’s your timetable? When do these caps start becoming art?
MM: March 5, 2020—that’s our final countdown. We’re going to have a huge three-day cap count and sort event teaming up with HHHBA at the Home and Garden Show. That’s where we’re trying to see if we can get into Guinness and where we’re going to separate the caps out for the individual structures.

BK: What’s the actual record you’re looking to set?
MM: The record is for largest collection and structure of bottle caps, and it was established in Japan. I think theirs is just over a million. So, we’re trying to win that and put Beaufort County on the map. Whether we get the record or not, it’s something that can bring the community together to see the impact these single-use plastics have. Everyone thinks it’s insignificant until you see it in volume.

BK: A lot of your campaigns have focused on small things. Ever get sick of having to narrow your focus so much?
MM: I think people don’t want to think about what the full view is. They don’t think it happens in our neck of the woods. But when you have colleges like USCB doing research on plastic in our oyster beds….

BK: That’s a huge reality check.
MM: There’s so much that we could be able to do. I’m not expecting the county to pull off a miracle. People get edgy when they find out we can’t recycle bottle caps and say, “Why isn’t the county working on that?” It’s not going to be an instant solution. The instant solution would be trying to eliminate waste.
I think what I started with POC was basically wanting to bring awareness to individuals that we can do more if we work as a community. If we’re engaged, you can see the visual. You can see what’s being thrown away when its accumulated by the masses. After a month, when a whole bunch of kids focused on incentives see what they’ve collected, it’s a lot. And they can see what they’ve been throwing away.

BK: So, they see it’s more than just a trip to the aquarium.
MM: I truly believe kids are the ones that are going to save the planet. That’s why my target is younger kids. After every single presentation, they want to do something. They want to make a change. They want to be able to be part of the movement. They’re always asking what they can do.

But it has to be reinforced by parents. It can be difficult. Kids see something that’s affected them; they can make a change. We just need to encourage that change. When I take my kids to the movies, and they want popcorn and a soda, we ask for no lid and I just pray I won’t spill. “You hold the popcorn, kid. I’ll hold the soda. Here are some Twizzlers; use those for your straw.”

BK: I see, your kids just want the Twizzlers.
MM: And even they’re wrapped in plastic. It’s hard; it’s like, “Where does it end?” It’s hard to find medium ground. But if we don’t have these conversations, there’s never going to be another step. You have to have these conversations; you have to have these campaigns, because that’s what brings awareness to other pressing issues we need to overcome.

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