Let'em Litter? What Is the Right Role for Individuals?

Personal responsibility is important; corporate responsibility, even more.

Posted Dec 02, 2019

With apologies to Sir Walter Scott: Breathes there a man or woman with soul so dead that never to themselves have said that they bear at least some responsibility for the sad state of today’s natural environment? Surely not. Such people with even a passing interest in history would do well to avail themselves of Throughline, a relatively new NPR podcast, which aims to “go back in time, to understand the present.” Not least among the treasures available therein is an episode broadcast on Sept. 5, 2019, with the unprepossessing title, “The Litter Myth.” Much of the present essay derives from this podcast.

“The Litter Myth” begins with an unexpected acknowledgment. One of Throughline’s hosts announces that he is skeptical that recycling and litter prevention is our personal responsibility. Annoyed, I almost stopped listening at this point. But very quickly, things got surprising and more than a little thought-provoking. I can’t guarantee the accuracy of all that follows, but NPR's fact-checking has a good track record. 

Shortly after the Second World War, we learn, garbage was not what it is today; people had become accustomed to reusing items whenever possible, and throwing things away only when absolutely necessary. This became a serious challenge, however, to those newly emerging industries that yearned to profit from the production and sale of throw-away items, notably glass, plastics, and paper products. A vigorous advertising campaign was launched, inducing people to recalibrate their wartime domestic habits and start throwing things away after single-use. It was more hygienic, you see, and more convenient—and incidentally more profitable for those manufacturers who made and sold those items.

But by the early 1950s, this transformation had begun to backfire, as Americans started seeing nearly everything as garbage, including those glass bottles that they used to rinse and reuse. Instead, they started generating large amounts of unsightly litter and even got into the habit of throwing glass bottles out of their car windows. These had an unfortunate tendency to end up broken in a field, where grazing cows would either step on them and injure themselves or consume them and die. Dairy farmers became increasingly incensed, especially in Vermont, then as now a dairying state.

In response, Vermont passed legislation in 1953 that banned disposable glass bottles. Industry worried that this was a harbinger of restrictions to come, so many of the bottle and packaging companies joined together in a counter-intuitive but creative way: They formed something called Keep America Beautiful. It still exists today, and how could anyone object to it? Keep America Beautiful began as an example of what is now often criticized as “virtue signaling,” but in this case, the goal wasn’t simply to signal their virtue, or even to engage in “green-washing.”

Rather, the reason such behemoth companies as Coca Cola and Dixie Cup formed what became the country’s premier anti-littering organization was evidently to co-opt public concern and legislative restrictions by shifting the blame from themselves as the actual producers of litter—those whose pursuit of excess profits led to the problem in the first place—to the public, the real culprits whose sin was putting the stuff in the wrong places.

Garbage, you see, wasn’t the problem. Industry certainly wasn’t the problem. We were. So, shape up America; it’s your job, the responsibility of every citizen to be a responsible consumer (but of course, to keep consuming) to keep the environment clean, to keep America beautiful. At first, and to some extent even now, legitimate environmental organizations such as the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club joined. Keep America Beautiful went big-time, producing print ads, billboards, signs, free brochures, pamphlets and eventually Public Service Announcements.

People of a certain age will remember the slogan: “Every litter bit hurts.” And the jingle, to the tune of Dear, Dear, What Can the Matter Be: “Please, please, don’t be a litterbug.” Keep America Beautiful had coordinated with the Ad Council, a major marketing firm. Schools and government agencies signed on to the campaign, which worked. It’s at least possible that as a result, America became somewhat more beautiful but even more important, that troublesome Vermont law that caused such corporate consternation? It was quietly allowed to die a few years after it had been passed, and – crucially – no other state ever emulated it and banned single-use bottles.

But by Earth Day, in April 1970, environmental consciousness and anti-establishment sensibilities began fingering corporations once again, demanding that they take at least some responsibility for environmental degradation, including pollution more generally. Keep America Beautiful once again got out in front of the public mood and hired a pricey, top-line ad agency that came up with another icon that still resonates today with Americans who were alive at that time: the Crying Indian.

"Iron Eyes Cody" the Crying Indian
Source: Wikipedia

Appearing on national television in 1971, it showed a Native American (the actor was actually Italian-American) with a conspicuous tear in his eye when he encountered trash, while a voice-over intoned, “Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. And some people don’t. People start pollution. People can stop it.” In short, it’s all our fault.

Shades of Smokey Bear’s, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”

Of course, Smokey is right. Somewhat. Individuals, with their careless use of matches, can certainly precipitate forest fires, but as today’s wildfire epidemics demonstrate, there are also major systemic contributions: Global heating with consequent drying, diminished over-winter insect die-offs that produce beetle epidemics which in turn leave vast tracts of standing dead trees, and so forth. Individuals indeed have a responsibility to keep the natural environment clean and not to start fires, but also to recognize the extent to which industry’s actions and government’s insufficient actions have generated most of the underlying problem.

Which brings us to global climate change. Certainly, each of us ought to practice due diligence in our own lives. Reduce your carbon footprint, turn off unneeded appliances, purchase energy-efficient ones, and so forth. But amid the barrage of warnings and advice about personal blame and individual responsibility, there may well be a lesson to be gleaned from the corporate manipulations that gave us Keep America Beautiful, and its subsequent epigones: Don’t allow such retail actions to distract from the need to place most of the blame where it belongs, on the much larger systemic wholesale entities that are responsible, namely corporate and government policy where change is way overdue. 

David P. Barash is professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Washington. Among his recent books is Through a Glass Brightly: using science to see our species as we really are (Oxford University Press, 2018).