It’s all down to you
Own your shit – a truism for anyone with an environmental conscience. But what if said shit has been thrust upon you? That is the question the packaging and disposables industry rather you didn’t ask.
When throwaway culture was still in its infancy corporations had their game plan chalked up. Up front they would fund environmental clean-up groups, but behind the scenes they would lobby hard to resist any attempt to restrict making goods that people junked sometimes mere minutes after purchase.
Take the case of the US state of Vermont in 1953, where legislators banned throwaway bottles after farmers complained that they were getting mixed up with the hay they were feeding livestock. Within months an anti-litter non-profit called Keep America Beautiful was birthed. An industry-funded grouping, KAB’s founders were the inventors of single-use cans and bottles. They linked up with giants like Coca-Cola and the National Association of Manufacturers.
Who's the ‘litterbug’?
Keep America Beautiful went into a two-pronged assault. They made a big song and dance about public awareness-raising, bringing the term ‘litterbug’ into the lexicon. All this single-use trash that was piling up, they contended, was the responsibility of individual consumers rather than the manufacturers who were peddling it for higher profit margins. Having successfully shifted the narrative, they diligently worked against any legislation that might oblige manufacturers to reuse their packaging or reduce it. Vermont allowed its legislation to lapse after four years.
By the late 1950s, US states were passing anti-litter measures aplenty but not a single restriction against packaging. In the immortal words of an American Can Company executive: ‘Packages don’t litter, people do.’ In the 1970s, KAB teamed up with the Ad Council for the big boohoo, a public service announcement featuring an indigenous American (played by an actor of Italian descent) paddling his canoe down a river to reach the side of a highway where a passing car throws a bag of litter at his feet. A single tear trickles down his stony face. The ‘Crying Indian ad’ tugged at the heartstrings of an entire nation.
When recycling began to enter public consciousness in the 1980s, industry seized upon it as the answer to a growing rubbish problem, supporting public clean-up campaigns and recycling education. This was yet more greenwashing, as recycling puts no impediment to the generation of disposables and again shifts the focus from the producer and regulation. Indeed, during the 1990s the American Plastics Council and the Society of Plastic Industries lent vocal support to the idea of recycling while pushing against 180 regulatory proposals in 32 states.
Focus on individual not companies
Things have changed little today. Any legislation for reuse (like bottle deposit schemes) or for producers to take on some environmental responsibility has come about in the teeth of opposition from industry and ‘environmental’ groups on its payroll. It’s best for industry that the debate around packaging waste remains focused around litter caused by individuals to be dealt with by local authorities – and away from themselves. In Australia, McDonald’s sponsors Clean Up Australia, while Coca-Cola pours cash into Keep Australia Beautiful.
Earlier this year, campaigning group Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) released a detailed report showing how the packaging industry’s lobbyists in Europe were managing to ‘deflect tougher solutions’, including by sponsoring anti-litter campaigns.
It outlined the influence of lobby firm Pack2Go Europe, creator of the Clean Europe Network, which ‘co-ordinates with NGOs and public authorities to “improve litter prevention techniques across the EU”’. The European Commission has also poured funds into Clean Europe for activities such as ‘defining litter’ (!) and ‘awareness raising’.
In Belgium so-called ‘social movement’ Mooimakers (The beautifiers) is a member of the Network and has its staff and activities entirely funded by industry. In the Netherlands, Network member Nederland Schoon (Clean Netherlands) also receives substantial funding from industry via an intermediary organization. The Dutch have a successful bottle deposit scheme in operation, but when government-commissioned research supported extending it to smaller bottles and cans, Nederland Schoon’s director wrote a letter distancing herself from it, thus siding with industry. A case of not biting the hand that feeds?
Packaging industry must change
Another Network member, Keep Scotland Beautiful, which is mainly government-funded, kept arguing against deposit return schemes, prompting criticism from Friends of the Earth Scotland that ‘KSB is in danger of becoming a creature of the packaging industry, rather than a serious environmental group’. Only when industry itself began singing a different tune, after much negative media coverage, did KSB have a change of heart, calling deposit return schemes ‘beyond doubt, a step forward’.
Now genuine environmental groupings and public campaigns are waking up to the fact that the ‘litter’ problem is not just about sloppy individuals and recycling; the real gains are to be made by forcing producers to change. Time they owned their shit.
Sources: Bradford Plumer, ‘The origins of anti-litter campaigns’, Mother Jones, 22 May 2006, nin.tl/MJ-anti-litter; Heather Rogers, ‘Garbage Capitalism’s green commerce’, Socialist Register, vol. 43, 2007, nin.tl/green-commerce; CEO, ‘Packaging lobby’s support for anti-litter groups deflects tougher solutions’, 28 March 2018, nin.tl/CEO-packaging; Matt Wilkins, ‘More recycling won’t solve plastic pollution’, Scientific American blog, 6 July 2018, nin.tl/Wilkins-plastic; Jeff Sparrow, ‘Recycling: how corporate Australia played us for mugs’, The Guardian, 18 July 2018, nin.tl/corporate-Australia
The ‘Crying Indian’ ad can be viewed at nin.tl/crying-PSA