The Litter Problem, 40 Years Later

Lance Hosey

Like many children of the 70s, I first felt the spark of environmental awareness while watching a television commercial. A buckskin-clad Native American paddles downstream in a bark canoe, enters an industrial port ringed by dark factories and belching smokestacks, and disembarks on a bank riddled with litter. Ominous music plays behind an even more ominous voiceover: “Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country.” A passing driver flings garbage at the Indian’s feet. “And some people don’t.” With a tear in his eye, the Indian turns to the camera as the baritone declares, “People start pollution; people can stop it.”

Sponsored by Keep America Beautiful (KAB), the famous “Crying Indian” Public Service Announcement (PSA) debuted 40 years ago this spring, on the second Earth Day, in 1971. I was six years old. On the one hand, the spot now seems a heavy-handed bit of theatrics in which William Conrad, the original Marshall Matt Dillon on radio’s “Gunsmoke,” narrates a morality tale played by a generic Indian straight out of Central Casting—credited as Chief Iron Eyes Cody but actually an Italian-American actor named Tony de Corti. On the other hand, the clarity and resonance of this half-minute film made it one of the most memorable and successful PSAs ever, by some estimates doing more to reduce litter and pollution than any other single initiative.

Four decades later, how far have we come? According to KAB, litter has decreased 61 percent since 1969, but the problem has far from disappeared. Every year, Americans line our roadways with 51 billion bits of litter, or nearly 7 thousand items per mile. That means you’re not likely to drive a single foot of road without seeing trash. Cleaning it up costs the US $11.5 billion annually, says KAB, and taxpayers foot the bill for a big chunk of that. Litter in communities lowers property values by 7 percent, or nearly $20,000 on the price of the average house. Bags, bottles, boxes, paper, and other debris get swept into gutters and storm drains and end up in waterways and seas, and the environmental contamination can be significant.

How can we stop it? KAB’s first advice is simple: “Choose not to litter.” But it may not be that easy. For those who do choose not to litter, there’s still confusion over how best to dispose of materials. That’s on the consumer side. On the industry side, there remain challenges around how best to recover those materials for effective reuse. According to the EPA, in 2009 Americans produced about 243 million tons of solid waste, or about 4.3 pounds per person every day, and only a fraction gets recycled, so even if we avoid littering, we could merely end up over-taxing landfills. Some two thirds of our garbage still gets dumped in landfills, partly because much of what we throw out isn’t clearly marked as to how or where to discard it.

The Labeling for Packaging Recovery project, led by GreenBlue’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition, could help alleviate the problem by creating easier-to-understand instructions right on the material. It’s a great example of how industry can educate consumers.

People start pollution, but business can help stop it.


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