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Litterbugs

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Friday, Jun 9, 2006

When I see trash on the street, it’s my initial reaction to want to condemn some person. I think about laziness, indifference, people so disenfranchised that they just don’t care or that like vandals destroying property with grafitti, they get a thrill from ruining something pleasant—a park, a clean block—for everyone else because they (rightly, probably) feel excluded from enjoying it. But I was probably guilty of an intellectual laziness in falling back on those thoughts, which justify a class snobbery.


Mother Jones contributor Brad Plumer has a great recap of the invention of litter as a public menace, a story told in Heather Rogers’s book Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage. Not that litter isn’t a nuisance, just that the campaign to direct our attention toward individual litterbugs was directed by the packaging industry that enables them. This is turn steered legislative efforts away from reforming the packaging industry:


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.


Plumer points out that this probably has a lot to do with the faddishness of recycling, one of my pet arguments. “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.” Aside being a form of moral vanity, recycling is an alibi for waste, a readymade excuse that justifies using lots of individually wrapped, small-serving-sized crap—which in turn helps disseminate a culturewide sense that sharing is foolish and futile, and reinforce our sense of isolation, of needing to avoid contamination, of needing our property fenced off, of being individually-wrapped members of society, sealed off from everyone else. Recycling merely recycles this mentality, refurbishes it for another alienated generation.

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