Chip Minemyer | Half-century after tearful ad, litter a lingering problem

Tribune Democrat – The state last week released the results of a new study – with findings that are neither groundbreaking nor surprising:  Pennsylvania has a littering problem.

Patrick McDonnell, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Resources, said: “Litter undercuts our quality of life and the health of our waters and soil. It shortchanges community improvements and economic development, as funds that could otherwise be spent more productively instead go to trash cleanup.”

The DEP, PennDOT and Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful produced what a press release called “the first statewide comprehensive research on litter, the cost of cleaning it up, and attitudes toward litter.”

Shannon Reiter, president of Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful, added: “We’re seeing that even extensive and expensive cleanup efforts can’t keep pace with the amount of litter that’s accumulating.”

You mean all of those public service announcements when I was a kid didn’t stick?

If you’re old enough, you’ll recall a Keep America Beautiful television ad from the early 1970s that featured an actor dressed as a Native American – Iron Eyes Cody – paddling a canoe through pristine waters before encountering first trash floating in the river, then a smokestack belching filth into the air and then a beach covered by debris.

(Click here to watch the ad.)

A deep, male voice offers narration as Cody makes his way through his polluted environment:

“Some people have a deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. And some people don’t.”

Think of it as the first campaign to make America great again.

As trash thrown from a passing vehicle lands at Cody’s feet, the narrator says: “People start pollution. People can stop it.”

Then the money shot: As the camera zooms in, a tear rolls from Cody’s eye. Clearly this Native American is deeply troubled at the carnage around him.

The Keep America Beautiful movement was seen as largely successful. Young people of the time added ecology to their list of causes (racial equality, opposition to the Vietnam War, women’s rights).

But the ad campaign (another version featured Cody riding a horse through the forest) was also roundly criticized.

For one, the actor was not Native American. He was of Italian-American descent. (And Johnny Depp played “Tonto” …)

Further, critics said the ad made pollution prevention appear to be solely the responsibility of individuals, not of corporations that were doing much of the polluting.

Some polluting companies even helped pay for the ads, critics noted – propaganda with a twist of diversion.

(Kind of like modern energy companies and their political mouthpieces who won’t admit that fossil fuels are damaging the environment, or that global climate change even exists – despite a proliferation of scientific evidence supporting climate change and no actual science that shows otherwise.)

The new state report – compiled through random calls to 500 residents, and a survey done at a community forum – found that:

• Pennsylvania cities spend more than $68 million each year on “cleanup, education, enforcement, and prevention efforts related to litter and illegal dumping.” Philadelphia spends half of that, with other cities – even Altoona – making the list.

• The transportation department spends about $13 million a year “on staff and resources” to collect litter along back roads and highways.

• Field researchers found more than 502 million pieces of litter along Pennsylvania’s roads; most common are cigarette butts (37%) and plastics (30%).

• They found 29.3 million beverage containers, meaning, the press release said, “motorists and pedestrians are leading sources of litter, followed by improperly secured truck loads.”

Corporations got a pass in this report, too.

But, the groups noted some goods news – that thousands of Pennsylvanians have participated in community projects, some affiliated with the Pick Up Pennsylvania campaign, to remove millions of pounds of garbage from our roads, streams and parks.

Locally, groups have cleaned up neighborhoods across Johnstown and other communities, while the Discover Downtown Johnstown Partnership purchased numerous trash cans now in places around the city’s business district.

And yet, you could fill a large garbage bag while walking through Central Park on many days.

Cody wasn’t really an Indian. And that tear running down his cheek was the product of clever marketers, not genuine emotion.

But despite the cultural stereotypes in the ad campaign and broader corporate influences behind the messaging, “Keep America Beautiful” is a slogan that is not outdated or without value.

If you’re reading this in a newspaper, it can be recycled.

And that paper cup and plastic lid from your favorite coffee vendor? Well, you know where it belongs when you’re done.

Have a litter-free day.

See the Article