Let’s dive into the roots of our recycling system.
Many people trace much of our modern recycling system to the awareness created by the famous (infamous?) “Crying Indian” ad in 1971.
This ad by the “Keep America Beautiful” organization was transformational. Their stated goal is to “end littering, to improve recycling, and to beautify American communities.”
The “Crying Indian” ad catapulted Earth Day, and recycling into the national consciousness.
At first glance the image of the “Indian” paddling his canoe through trash infested waters with the message “People start pollution, people can stop it” sounds good.
To many however this ad is deeply problematic for several reasons (not the least of which the “Indian” is actually Italian American actor Iron Eyes Cody, but that’s a rant for a different day).
What if I told you that Keep America Beautiful was an organization founded by large bottle manufacturers? What if I told you they started it in order to fight against can and bottle deposits that many states were beginning to pass?
Bottle deposits have been proven over and over to be one of the most effective ways to keep cans and bottles from ending up as litter, so why would an entity who’s stated mission is to “end littering” be opposed to bottle deposits??
In her film Gone Tomorrow. The Hidden Life of Garbage, Heather Rogers says that Keep America Beautiful is one of America’s first corporate greenwashing fronts.
By focusing the national conversation on “ending littering”, Keep America Beautiful has successfully transferred the failing of pollution from industry to individuals.
They have convinced us that if everybody will just do their part and sort their trash, we won’t have pollution.
Their argument is that if individuals are responsible enough, then it doesn’t matter what materials they make their packaging out of. If litter ends up in the environment it’s because some knucklehead littered… the fact that it is made out of plastic that won’t break down for millennia isn’t even mentioned.
It wasn’t that long ago that soda and milk were sold in glass bottles that you returned to the store to be washed and reused…
But hauling and washing bottles is more expensive than a plastic bottle that costs a few pennies to make.
Industry knew that they could (as an economist might say it) externalize the cost of the bottle disposal then they could pad their bottom line. But for that to work they had to convince you to happily pay that cost for them.
I am in no way saying recycling is bad. We should close the loop and reuse materials as many times as possible.
What I am saying, is there are responsible ways to do that. Those responsible ways start with the packaging that is used, because not all materials are created equally when it comes to recycling.