Recycling with the Keep America Beautiful Man – and the Hidden Life of Garbage

Prelude: People think of recycling as ‘green’ and environmentally friendly. The following post shares one rather frightening example of how recycle marketing has been used as a greenwash to allow corporations to slip environmentally unfriendly products through government regulations and to simultaneously encourage increased consumption.

Enjoy, or not, the KAB Man series from, but whatever you do, stay tuned for the more serious side of recycling afterwards….

Episode I – Hiring a Superhero

Episode II – First Day on the Job

Episode III – KAB Man Gets a Sidekick

If you’ve spent half your lunch break chuckling over the above, now it’s time to get a little serious for the other half. No need to stop chewing though.

Recycling is a great thing. We need to do it, and we need to learn how to do it as efficiently as possible. It should become as natural to us as brushing our teeth. But, I want to make a point here about where our litter comes from in the first place.

Please take the time to watch the following video, where you’ll see KAB Man’s new sidekick, Iron Eyes Cody again (seen in Episode III above), but, more importantly, learn some interesting facts about the original Keep America Beautiful campaign – that, rather than an effort in genuine corporate social responsibility, it was in fact a campaign launched to stop the spread of laws that threatened the profits and ‘efficiency’ of industry. The campaign was a bid to shift focus away from the source of the litter (the corporations who capitalise on built-in obsolescence, and encourage rampant over-consumption), and to instead transfer the blame to the individual doing their ‘patriotic duty’ – the consumer. Specifically, the KAB campaign was "was created in response to Vermont’s 1953 attempt to outlaw disposable containers" (wikipedia). The bottling industries wanted to externalise costs by avoiding laws that forced them to deal with returned glass (I still remember taking glass bottles back to the store as a child to retrieve a few cents back). Instead of depost/return/recycling systems, they wanted to shift to disposable plastic bottles – leaving the onus of cleanup on the individual and on munipical (taxpayer financed…) recycling. The cost of the greenwash campaign was far less than their own glass recycling costs – and so disposable plastic bottles were born into the world.
Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage

KAB Man – a superhero, or a
victim of corporate green-washing?

Not wanting to belittle the comedic efforts of the Keep America Beautiful people, I’d much rather see a campaign encouraging people to buy less by encouraging home gardens and cottage industries. The concept of ignoring the never-ending waves of fashion, look, and design, considering needs over wants, or developing systems of self-sufficiency, are never broached unfortunately. Also not mentioned is that recycling processes themselves consume vast amounts of energy on their own. The separate collections, the inability to recycle vast amounts of ‘recycleable’ material, etc. are hidden from the consumer eye.

Please take a moment to consider the definition of the following word:

verb transitive to use up; to devour; to waste or spend; to destroy by wasting, fire, evaporation, etc; to exhaust.

The concept of consumption always had a bad connotation up until about a century ago. So much so, in fact, that they assigned this name to a terribly deadly disease – Tuberculosis. This has all changed. Today, a good consumer is a model citizen of capitalist society. Our politicians are positively infatuated with the words “growth economy”. A healthy economy, we are told, is dependent on growth – and we cannot have growth without continual, ever increasing, consumption.

If the sink was overflowing, I could start a “Keep the Bathroom Beautiful” campaign, soliciting all of you to help with the cleanup. We’d all get busy with mops, right? We dare not regulate the flow of water by turning the tap off, you see – as keeping the water flowing is critical to progress.

The reality is that an economy that can only exist through a constant plundering of finite resources is to the earth what cancer is to the human body. Its success is made complete through the death of the host.



17 thoughts on “Recycling with the Keep America Beautiful Man – and the Hidden Life of Garbage

  1. I do not know, I just have the urge to tell people that the Earth will be okay without us. Even if we destroy the biosphere and this planet falls silent. The Universe will go on. Everything is All Right.

    This is not to say we should let it go to shit and not even try. The idea of human potential in harmony with natural law and our ambition directed towards balance is beautiful enough to bring a man to tears. It seems like there is a lot invested in human beings. Sometimes these wagers pay off sometimes they set you back. Nothing is wasted in nature and everything happens for a reason.

    “Come, let us be friends for once; let us make life easy on us; let us be lovers and loved ones; the earth shall be left to no one.”
    Yunus Emre


  2. So many parallels with Australia – not surprising I suppose.
    Keep Australia Beautiful has similar history as I understand. Coca Cola is major sponsor of token beverage container recycling initiatives in Australia right now.
    We are building a Cash for Containers campaign (see facebook or to bring in container deposits across Australia.
    Seeking volunteers and groups to support campaign with postcard distribution and other support soon. Critical next 12 months.
    Ideas for ACTION now:
    Photograph local litter and send to your local member.
    Remove label from PET bottles, circle ’10cent refund in SA’ and post to companies and local pollies asking for national system.
    Email us to volunteer – we are getting creative with bottle costumes and theme songs… Can anyone play the ten green bottles tune on a guitar?

  3. If recycling glass is so expensive, then why are the soda bottles I buy in Mexico so well-worn and stamped with dates from the 1990s?

  4. JBob said: “if recycling glass is so expensive, then why are soda bottles i but in Mexico so well worn and stamped with dates from the 1990’s.

    recycling glass, ie, breaking bottles and remelting them to make new bottles is little better than starting with sand. REUSING bottles that happen to be glass, is very cost effective as the most costly portion of manufacture, making the bottle, is preserved

    reusing an item as designed is better than destroying the item for scrap. a repaired car is worth more than a smashed block of metal headed for the mill

  5. Exactly Duane. Reminds me of the people dumping their toyota corolla to buy a Prius, thinking they’re saving the world. If only we could get a Prius – one for every member of the family – then we’d all be okay….

    The internet is full of ‘green technology’. We’re waiting for the technologists to save the world with building designs, and every other design. Not recognising that it takes immense energy and pollution – and money – to build anything. We aren’t starting from a blank slate as far as our housing situation goes. All the talk of new green buildings has little value to all the people who will never own one.

    Retrofit, reuse, and don’t surrender to the dream we can keep buying but get our salvation through tossing the wrapper, and product, into the recycle bin.

  6. Thank you Craig for putting together this nice piece of work and for linking my article to it! I’ve seen through the videos and followed the links now, and it’s much there I must try to come back to later. Really interesting stuff, I wish this site will be widely known and all people come to this understanding explained here.

    For Scandinavian readers I’ll recommend this radio lecture at NRK P2, by Henrik Sinding Larsen:

    Here he explains thoroughly why the modern slogan “sustainable growth” is nonsense, and that the only sustainable is “sustainable degradation”.

  7. Craig, all the talk of new “green” buildings mainly mean filling up the houses with new technology so advanced that you need extremely expensive “experts” to sustain them, with expensive service agreements, expensive reserve parts etc, etc.

    The most sustainable is to use natural ventilation, natural moisture regulation materials, heat accumulating materials etc. But the construction industry shies these natural techniques, as they cannot earn anything extra from them. F. ex. here they try to prohibit natural ventilation, which not can break down, doesn’t need service agreements, reserve parts, no noise or ultra sound, and that doesn’t destroy the ion balance:

  8. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

    In nature, there is no such thing as “trash”. Just objects & substances that are most useful only in the right place & time. Human fecal material might be worthless to those that produce it, but for earthworms, beetles, and fungi, it is a valuable commodity ^^

    “Craig, all the talk of new “green” buildings mainly mean filling up the houses with new technology so advanced that you need extremely expensive “experts” to sustain them, with expensive service agreements, expensive reserve parts etc, etc.” [end quote]

    And to add to that, what would be so “green” about consumer technologies that, while using less electricity than older counterparts, require exotic minerals that must be strip-mined from the earth – thus causing widespread environmental damage in the process?

    Sounds to me like a repeat of the “Green Revolution” of Norman Borlaug and co. What was supposed to be a giant leap forward only turned out to be a humongous leap backward.

  9. “In 1972, Naess made a presentation in Bucharest at the Third World Future Research Conference. In his talk, he discussed the longer-range background of the ecology movement and its concern with an ethic respecting nature and the inherent worth of other beings. As a mountaineer who had climbed all over the world, Naess had enjoyed the opportunity to observe political and social activism in diverse cultures. Both historically and in the contemporary movement, Naess saw two different forms of environmentalism, not necessarily incompatible with each other. One he called the “long-range deep ecology movement” and the other, the “shallow ecology movement.” The word “deep” in part referred to the level of questioning of our purposes and values when arguing in environmental conflicts. The “deep” movement involves deep questioning, right down to fundamental root causes. The short-term, shallow approach stops before the ultimate level of fundamental change, often promoting technological fixes (e.g. recycling, increased automotive efficiency, export-driven monocultural organic agriculture) based on the same consumption-oriented values and methods of the industrial economy. The long-range deep approach involves redesigning our whole systems based on values and methods that truly preserve the ecological and cultural diversity of natural systems.”


    I should say the Keep America Beautiful Man is a rather shallow guy, not a deep ecologist at all. Like most of these so called “technology optimists” are.

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