Keep America Beautiful (KAB), a nonprofit organization working on behalf of corporate giants such as Coca-cola, PepsiCo and McDonald’s has released a new report revealing the findings of a decade of litter collection in the US. KAB launched in the 1950s and created the notorious ‘Crying Indian’ PSA, a public relations effort to redirect the growing public concern about roadside trash from the producers of the packaging to the consumers. The group is also responsible for coining the now widely used term ‘litterbugs’. Below are three reasons why the group’s most recent report must be seen within the context of its historical purpose.
- No Transparency + Questionable Data
The study makes no attempt to reveal the methodology for how it collects its data, including no information about the number of participants involved or the geographies covered in the study. The study even uses the data to extrapolate the total amount of litter in the country, despite the clean-up events being limited to roads and waterways.
This becomes all the more of an issue when we see some of the conclusions at odds with data collection at other large clean-up events. For example, plastic beverage bottles are consistently in the top three most littered items in data from the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Clean-Up Day and #BreakFreeFromPlastic’s annual Brand Audit, but account for less than 2% of KAB’s dataset.
- Centering ‘Litter’ As The Problem
Focusing studies on litter frames the problem around ‘mismanaged waste’, with the implication that litter is inherently separate from the broader waste and plastic crisis. This is the wrong place to draw a line in the sand. The Story of Plastic pulled back the curtain on the fact that plastic — which forms a growing portion of our litter by the study’s findings — is largely an unmanageable problem. Just 2% of plastic is effectively recycled, the rest is downcycled, exported, landfilled or burned.
A world free from litter won’t protect low-income and people of color that disproportionately make up the communities that live near fossil fuel extraction and refinery sites, nor the landfills and incinerators spreading toxic chemicals.
- A Consumer Problem With A Consumer Solution
Despite the report acknowledging that an eye-popping 30,000 new types of packaged goods are brought to market annually, the study holds all Americans responsible for cleaning up litter. The report claims that if every citizen collected 152 pieces of litter, the problem would be over. The claim is absurd since it implies that there is a static amount of litter rather than a flow, resulting from the ever-increasing plastic packaging applications entering the market.
Strikingly, while the report acknowledges that there was half the amount of litter in states with a deposit return system on beverage containers, it stops short of recommending the policy or any other regulation of single-use plastics such as ‘producer pay’ laws, a plastic tax, or a ban on any packaging types. It recommends further research and education, continuing the group’s long-term pattern of deflecting pressure from the companies who take no responsibility for the cost of their packaging.
If you are interested in local litter reduction efforts, take part in #BreakFreeFromPlastic’s Brand Audit, where data collected about what is collected is aggregated to a global dataset used to hold companies responsible for their branded plastic polluting our environment.