Historian Bart Elmore explains how big business lies behind early efforts to encourage Americans to recycle.
BRIAN: You might remember this opening music from a 1971 anti-litter commercial. It’s the one with Iron Eyes Cody, an American Indian character played, as it turns out, by an Italian American.
We see him paddling a canoe down a river. Along the river, there’s a jungle of factories pumping out air pollution.
Iron Eyes pulls his canoe up to a sandy bank next to a highway. Someone chucks a plastic bag out of a car and it splatters at his feet. Iron Eyes turns to the camera and a single tear rolls down his cheek.
BART ELMORE: That’s right. The Iron Eye drips this tear as this trash is thrown at his feet in an industrialized landscape.
BRIAN: This is historian Bart Elmore.
BART ELMORE: And the great thing in that scene is the omniscient narrator. He says, “People start pollution. People can stop it.”
BRIAN: As the commercial fades to black, a logo fades in for the Keep America Beautiful campaign.
BART ELMORE: Such a great name! It’s the Sierra Club. It’s people that love polar bears.
But no. Really what this is is it was founded by the brewing, soft drink, and packaging industries in 1953.
BART ELMORE: And it was designed specifically to change the conversation, to deflect accusations that industry was to blame for the problem.
BRIAN: The litter problem Elmore is talking about really got going in the 1940s. Before that, consumers paid a deposit on soda bottles and got that money back when they returned them.
Bottlers reclaimed almost all of their containers. 96% percent of bottles made their way back into circulation. But in the ’30s and ’40s, industry officials started switching over to a more cost effective option– disposable cans. Now they wouldn’t have to collect, wash, and ship heavy glass bottles.
Elmore says it didn’t take long before American roads and highways were covered in garbage. And that’s when the public demanded that their government hold beverage makers accountable for this mess.
BART ELMORE: You could say that there were criticisms emerging in the 1950s. But certainly by the 1960s, we see concerned citizens and I think environmentalists really raising the alarm.
And what’s interesting Brian, is that we don’t think of highways today as the center of environmental activism. But it was the highways that were unclean. It’s not the national parks or these kind of– it’s the beautiful roadways that we need to keep clean.
So we see this in the ’60s, people saying wait a minute. Industry should be a part of cleaning up their act. They really need to be taking responsibility for this. We don’t need these throwaway containers. Maybe we need to return to the returnable.
BRIAN: What form did the pressure take? Were soda companies and bottlers worried that they were going to have to return to this more costly system of picking up the old bottles and reusing them?
BART ELMORE: Right. I think this concerned citizen movement moved into the area of politics. And we began to see, in the 1960s and ’70s, state legislature saying we’re going to place a mandatory deposit, that is, a small tax– five to 10 cents– on these containers that can be redeemed by consumers. And we would have seen Vermont and Oregon, by 1972 they would actually pass the first mandatory deposit laws in the country.
What’s amazing Brian, is that in 1970, there was a national law proposed by the House of Representatives and supported by 22 members of the House that would have banned throwaway containers in the United States. Imagine that.
Certainly by 1970, but beginning in the 1960s, wow, industries has to act. It’s got to find a way to combat this problem. Because even at the national level– there may be a ban on these things– what are they going to do?
BRIAN: What did they do?
BART ELMORE: Well you know, industry at the time is holding the legislators at bay by saying we’ll do this ourselves. We’ll build recycling centers privately run, and we can make this happen.
And that’s what you see at the same time is changing the public’s image of industry is one thing. But also showing legislators that hey, we’re going to build infrastructure ourselves that will solve this problem. And so we see the beginnings of these private reclamation centers.
BRIAN: And is it the private sector that comes up with the idea of reclaiming, recycling?
BART ELMORE: They’re being quite creative with trying to do different things. You know Coca-Cola would partner with Mobil Oil at one point. And they would try and organize these recycling centers at gas stations and things like this.
What we see though, is that it doesn’t work. It’s very expensive, for one. And two, people aren’t willing to bring back containers that don’t have any price on it. Going back to the beginning of the 20th century, we saw that the bottlers recognized that you had to put a price tag on waste if you wanted people to bring it back.
And so another solution really had to be proposed if the legislators were going to be held at bay. And that solution was really curbside recycling.
BRIAN: And who proposed that?
BART ELMORE: We think of curbside recycling as the quintessential model of environmental stewardship.
BART ELMORE: But if you go back to the congressional debates about federal funding for recycling in the United States, the people that are really front and center are the soft drink industry, the brewing industry, the packaging industry, who realize that this was their silver bullet. If we can convince the public that there’s a system that will work, then this will get people off our back.
And what a great system this will be. The taxpayer will pay for this and wow, we actually will get a benefit from this. All this reclaimed material will come back to our front door, but it’ll be financed by the public, not us. And this is what they push.
And so we begin to see the decline of mandatory deposit bills. And into the 1980s there’s 10 states that have mandatory deposits. After 1989, only Hawaii passes one. And that’s it. And they pass it in 2002, which is kind of weird.
BRIAN: Bart, you look angry.
BART ELMORE: [LAUGHS]
BRIAN: This strikes me as a good thing, right? Is this not the ultimate win-win? We’ve got everyone pulling together to actually create at least a more sustainable model.
BART ELMORE: Right. One of the things I always worry about when people misread what I write about recycling is that they think I hate recycling. That I’m this anti-environmentalist. But that’s not true. I think recycling is a great system.
But as historians, we look back at this and say OK, what’s the track record? What has actually happened? The promise of curbside recycling was that it would reclaim this material, that it would be a closed system.
BART ELMORE: I mean, we think about the logo for the recycling system.
BRIAN: It’s a loop.
BART ELMORE: It’s a loop. It’s this closed system. But the reality here is, from the perspective of the [? 2010s ?] we see that it’s not a closed system.
And I’ll give you a stat for that. If we look at PET plastic bottles– that is the plastic that we most consistently see for water bottles and things like that– 70% end up going to landfills. Now that’s after over almost three decades of trying to build a curbside recycling system that would reclaim all this material. What we’ve seen is that when you don’t put a price on pollution, you don’t see the types of reuse and reclamation that are at a rate that is truly that circle that we have when we think of that logo.
BRIAN: Bart Elmore is a historian at the University of Alabama, and the author of Citizen Coke– the Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism.