Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Plastic pollution and the invention of 'litter' > or, how the packaging industry avoided responsibility for creating the problem in the first place

This is the "Crying Indian" commercial from the early 1970s - which became one of the most memorable and successful campaigns in advertising history, according to the Ad Council, which co-produced the initiative with Keep America Beautiful:

Keep America Beautiful - (Crying-Indian) - 70s PSA Commercial - YouTube

This is a full account of how that advert got made:

And this is an introduction to KAB from Wikipedia:

Keep America Beautiful is a Stamford, CT based non profit organization founded in 1953. It is the largest community improvement organization in the United States

Heather Rogers, creator of the documentary film Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage and book of the same name, classifies Keep America Beautiful as one of the first greenwashing corporate fronts, alleging that the group was created in response to Vermont's 1953 attempt to legislate a mandatory deposit to be paid at point of purchase on disposable beverage containers and banning the sale of beer in non-refillable bottles.[9]

The Keep America Beautiful narrow focus on litter, and indeed construction of the modern concept of litter, is seen as an attempt to divert responsibility from industries that manufacture and sell disposable products to the consumer that improperly disposes of the related non-returnable wrappers, filters, and beverage containers.[10]

Elizabeth Royte author of Garbage Land, describes Keep America Beautiful as a "masterful example of corporate greenwash", writing that in contrast to its anti-litter campaigns, it ignores the potential of recycling legislation and resists changes to packaging.[13]

Keep America Beautiful - Wikipedia 

With a little more from Heather Rogers' "Gone Tomorrow: the hidden life of garbage":
About Gone Tomorrow
TalkingStickTV - Heather Rogers - The Hidden Life of Garbage - YouTube

And here, with an introduction from Mother Jones: 

The Origins of Anti-Litter Campaigns

BRADFORD PLUMER MAY. 22, 2006 10:48 PM

I’ve never known anyone who was objectively pro-litter. Litter’s awful. It’s disgusting. We’re all agreed. But it seems that the nationwide anti-litter campaign, which began in the 1950s, was a bit less pure in its origins. According to Heather Rogers’ Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, the entire anti-litter movement was initiated by a consortium of industry groups who wanted to divert the nation’s attention away from even more radical legislation to control the amount of waste these companies were putting out. It’s a good story worth retelling.

After World War II, the story goes, American manufacturers were running at full blast, and needed American consumers to keep buying more and more junk if they wanted to maintain their profit margins. And since there’s an upper limit to how much junk a given family genuinely needs to own, manufacturers had to figure out how to convince consumers to keep throwing their existing stuff out, so that they would buy new stuff.

In part, that meant companies had to ensure that in a few short years consumer goods would become either unfashionable (advertising can do that), or obsolete (simply stop offering customer support for anything a few years old), or broken (like the non-replaceable batteries in iPods that wear out after two years). Giles Slade describes some of these strategies in his book, Made to Break, and they’re techniques that have existed for decades now. But another way to ensure that factories could keep churning out junk was to introduce “non-renewable” packaging for products—for instance, the aluminum soda can—that could be produced, trashed, and then produced again.

The problem is that all of this endless—and needless—manufacturing creates a lot of garbage and pollution that generally wreaks havoc on the earth. (Packaging currently accounts for one-third of all trash in the United States today.) And eventually people wised up to this fact. In 1953 Vermont passed a law banning “throwaway bottles,” after farmers complained that glass bottles were being tossed into haystacks and being eaten by unsuspecting cows. Suddenly, state legislatures appeared poised to pass laws that would require manufacturers—and the packaging industry in particular—to make less junk in the first place. Horrors.

So that’s where litter comes in. In 1953, the packaging industry—led by American Can Company and Owens-Illinois Glass Company, inventors of the one-way can and bottle, respectively—joined up with other industry leaders, including Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Company to form Keep America Beautiful (KAB), which still exists today. KAB was well-funded and started a massive media campaign to rail against bad environmental habits on the part of individuals rather than businesses. And that meant cracking down on litter. Within the first few years, KAB had statewide antilitter campaigns planned or running in thirty-two states.

In essence, Keep America Beautiful managed to shift the entire debate about America’s garbage problem. No longer was the focus on regulating production—for instance, requring can and bottle makers to use refillable containers, which are vastly less profitable. Instead, the “litterbug” became the real villain, and KAB supported fines and jail time for people who carelessly tossed out their trash, despite the fact that, clearly, “littering” is a relatively tiny part of the garbage problem in this country (not to mention the resource damage and pollution that comes with manufacturing ever more junk in the first place). Environmental groups that worked with KAB early on didn’t realize what was happening until years later.

And KAB’s campaign worked—by the late 1950s, anti-litter ordinances were being passed in statehouses across the country, while not a single restriction on packaging could be found anywhere. Even today, thanks to heavy lobbying by the packaging industry, only twelve states have deposit laws, despite the fact that the laws demonstrably save energy and reduce consumption by promoting reuse and recycling. (A year after Oregon passed the first such law in 1972, 385 million fewer beverage containers were consumed in the state.) And no state has contemplated anything like Finland’s refillable bottle laws, which has reduced the country’s garbage output by an estimated 390,000 tons. But hey, at least we’re not littering.

So it’s a nifty judo throw, as far as it goes. I’m guessing that much the same thing is behind industry promotion of recycling. Again, no one can be “against” recycling. It’s very good. But of the three suggestions in the phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” the last is the practice least effective in curbing the manufacturing of junk. And that’s exactly why, during the environmental movement’s peak in the 1970s, the industry-funded National Center for Resource Recovery—which was founded by none other than Keep America Beautiful—lobbied state and national legislators to favor recycling as the means to address concerns about rising tides of garbage. It beat forcing people to “reduce” or “reuse.”

The catch is that recycling can probably only do so much to limit garbage production. As Rogers’ book points out, many materials can’t be recycled too often before it gets junked, and a vast amount of material marked for recycling simply gets trashed anyway, or is sent overseas to be dumped. Recycling certainly has very considerable upside, not least of which is that recycled stuff requires vastly less energy to create than making new junk from scratch, but it’s only a partway solution to reducing the 230 million tons of trash generated by this country each year, if that’s what people think should be done. A longer-term solution is to stop creating so much junk in the first place. Essentially, though, that’s what ideas like litter prevention are meant to obscure.

The Origins of Anti-Litter Campaigns – Mother Jones 

Finally, an excellent critique from the Plastic Pollution Coalition: 

Simply Recycling Won't Keep America Beautiful

November 15, 2015

By Elizabeth Glazner

Since President Eisenhower established the federal interstate highway system in 1956, roadside "litter" has been an ever-farther reaching phenomenon.

The piling up of plastics and other pollution along the shoulders of our highways and byways inspired a public service TV commercial 45 years ago that aired somewhere in the midst of The Brady Bunch and All in the Family, but we still remember it. Featuring the image of a proud Native American looking upon a trashed landscape and then straight into the camera as a single tear streamed down his face, its narrator proclaimed with a tone of reprimand and regret: "People caused pollution; people can stop it."

From the beginning, it seems people have been blamed for it.

As for specifically plastic pollution, we hear numbers like this repeated by environmental watch groups: "approximately 380 billion plastic bags are used in the United States every year—more than 1,200 bags per resident; 50 percent of plastic waste is from things we use just once and then throw away; every year, 100,000 marine mammals, and a million sea birds, are killed by plastic pollution..."

The scope of the plastic pollution problem is more evident, and the need for solutions more urgent, every day. Especially in developing countries, where lack of infrastructure has caused deadly flooding due to plastic bags clogging drainage systems; toxic air from plastic incineration is choking villages; and clean drinking water is more and more scarce because of industrial polluters.

Unsurprisingly, those industrial polluters—many of the manufacturers of the common, petroleum-derived products we use every day, stubbornly insist that if people just stopped willfully refusing to use the trash receptacles in their midst, the planet would be as pristine as an Ansel Adams photograph of the Sierra Nevada.

The "Crying Indian" commercial from the early 1970s became one of the most memorable and successful campaigns in advertising history, according to the Ad Council, which co-produced the initiative with Keep America Beautiful. What's that? A U.S.-based nonprofit formed in 1953 by key manufacturing industry corporations, including Coca-Cola, Philip Morris, Anheuser-Busch and PepsiCo. Today, their board chairman represents Dow Chemical Company, their CEO is from Keurig Green Mountain, Inc., and there are seats at the table for Nestlé Waters North America and McDonalds.

Do they ever talk about cutting down on the amount of disposable waste their products are consistently pumping into the marketplace?

A quick scan of the Ad Council website reveals their latest campaign with Keep America Beautiful: the "I Want To Be Recycled" campaign. It casts a plastic water bottle as a sweet soul whimsically dreaming of becoming a park bench.

"Since 2010, 63 percent of the population has had access to curbside recycling; yet recycling rates are still surprisingly low," states the Ad Council on its website. "In fact, only 34.5 percent of the 251 million tons of trash Americans generated that year was recycled or composted... 62 percent of Americans admitted they were not avid recyclers."

It's hard to read that without imagining it being spoken in the voice of the narrator from the "Crying Indian" campaign, and experiencing something that feels like shame all over again.

The stated intent of the Keep America Beautiful organization is to increase recycling rates, "which translates into measurable benefits including waste reduction, energy savings, natural resource conservation and job creation,” according to Senior Vice President Brenda Pulley, on the website. But what about the energy and natural resources used to manufacture disposable plastics, especially water bottles?

And as long as we are focused on recycling, manufacturers can avoid the conversation about source reduction that we should have been having for the last 45 years.

Keep America Beautiful commissioned a 2009 national study titled "Littering Behavior in America," which seemed to ignore completely the facts about plastic pollution, and instead pointed to cigarette butts as the leading cause of litter. Let's first call them out for the obvious: The use of the word "litter" is so much more benign than "pollution," and they are vilifying smokers instead of corporate polluters—a cheap and easy shot that works viscerally on a public that has been leaving the act of smoking behind for decades now. The report states:

"The most frequently littered item was cigarette butts (in our focused observations of smokers, we observed a 65 percent littering rate). With regard to disposals, our team also observed high littering rates for food remnants and food wrappers."

No mention of plastic bottles, beverage rings, bags or caps—nothing at all about the items in evidence virtually everywhere we look—along the freeway, at the high tide line in the morning at the beach, aside overflowing trash cans at stadium events.

The Keep America Beautiful campaign wants us to think of stereotypes of specious people who smoke and throw their butts out the window, instead of the $758 billion petrochemical industry that makes single-use plastic bags, or the $13 billion (U.S.) bottled water industry that pumps our own groundwater and sells it back to us in poisonous plastic bottles at spectacular markups, when we think of the problem of "plastic pollution."

Yet, "Every legislative restriction on plastics defeated by the industry and every consumer mollified into believing that using disposable plastics is a sustainable practice means the continuation of enormous global profits for industry," wrote environmental attorney Lisa Kaas Boyle, a Plastic Pollution Coalition co-founder, in an article entitled "Plastic and the Great Recycling Swindle."

As The Story of Stuff's founder Annie Leonard has been telling us in that group's many PSAs, "The choices available to us at the store are limited by choices of designers and policymakers outside of the store."

That fact is central to source reduction policy decisions. But "in order to preserve its global market," Boyle wrote, "the plastics industry has been forced into a new position." By pushing recycling on this day and every day, they continue to avoid taking responsibility for creating the problem in the first place.

Elizabeth Glazner is the editorial director. Reach her at editor@plasticpollutioncoalition.org

Simply Recycling Won't Keep America Beautiful — Plastic Pollution Coalition

See also:
Futures Forum: The Story of Stuff: "You cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely"
Futures Forum: Peak stuff >>> peak home furnishings >>> peak meat-balls
Futures Forum: Peak stuff is not happening
Futures Forum: Peak stuff >>> Are consumers getting tired of consuming?

Futures Forum: Planned Obsolescence: and The Men Who Made Us Spend
Futures Forum: Made to last? >>> getting companies to offer a 'lifetime product'
Futures Forum: “The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.”
Futures Forum: VW... and making 'wholly opaque disposable vehicles' >>> rather than making vehicles which 'run for a long time and are easy to fix'

Futures Forum: Reduce, reuse, recycle >>> >>> 'What's Wrong with the Three Rs of Environmentalism'
Futures Forum: The plastics industry is "incredibly supportive of recycling legislation over a more long-term… reduction of disposable culture."

1 comment:

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