Simply Recycling Won’t Keep America Beautiful

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? 

Keep America Beautiful holds America Recycles Day every November 15. 

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

2 responses to “Simply Recycling Won’t Keep America Beautiful”

  1. says:

    Great piece. I appreciate how you highlight the fact that lifestyle consumer choices are incapable of tackling the problem at the necessary scale, in part because the choices available to us are incredibly limited. Systemic change is desperately needed.

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