The Zero-Waste Case for Littering

You see the title of this post and probably think to yourself: “That’s it, they’ve finally lost their marbles. How could anyone, let alone an anti-trash advocate, endorse littering?? The transporter must’ve glitched!”

I haven’t grown an evil beard– I can assure you that this isn’t the mirror universe.

Being pro-litter is actually highly logical, as I will soon argue; even a Vulcan couldn’t disagree by the end of this post. Why? Well, it comes down to two things: one, the history of litter laws in the West (specifically the US), and two, a concept called direct action.

The History of Litter Laws in the West (Specifically the US)

Littering, like most everything else, wasn’t always criminalized. In fact, for the vast majority of human history, there was no need for it: litter was, up until very recently, almost always biodegradable natural waste, and in the case of tough-to-decompose materials like bones and ash, some of it was even saleable. But the sea change happened at a very important part of US and world history. What else was going on at the time? Well, WW2 had ended, for one thing. Plastics were being mass-produced for the first time, and the concept of disposability was just entering into the social consciousness; the USian public had 20 years of pinched pockets after the stock market crash of ’29, and during WW2, they had strict rationing. It’s little wonder how the allure of cheap and disposable goods captured the imaginations of so many as soon as the opportunity arose.

In 1953, Keep America Beautiful was founded in response to the trash accumulating along the roads of the country’s brand-spankin’-new interstate highway system. In 1955, Britain had its own campaign: Keep Britain Tidy. Australia founded Keep Australia Beautiful in 1968. Other countries have similar initiatives, though not usually on a national scale; for instance, in Canada, it appears most anti-littering organizations operate on the provincial or municipal level, and very few of these smaller movements go back further than the 90’s.

But those campaigns are good, you might be saying. They are, it could be argued, on paper. In reality, Keep America Beautiful, obviously the first and most influential of the anti-littering movements, was founded by a group of key players in the beverage industry, who were beginning to see bad publicity when their products were turning up on roadsides and in ditches all over the country. Some of these names you might recognize: Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Anheuser-Busch, and Phillip Morris. From Bottle Bill Toolkit’s history of Keep America Beautiful:

In the aftermath of magazine ads promoting beverage cans as “throwaways”, Keep America Beautiful (KAB) was founded in 1953 by a group of businessmen from the beverage and packaging industries. Their purported interest was to curb the growing problem of litter. Coincidently, 1953 was the year Vermont passed the nation’s first bottle bill, banning the sale of beer in non-refillable bottles.

Litter was a visible problem nationwide and the bottlers and packagers were concerned that government would make them responsible for solving the litter problem by regulating their industries. That concern was the catalyst for founding KAB. The organization launched its first campaign theme, “Every Litter Bit Hurts” and the most visible environmental organizations joined KAB’s war on litter.

So like any good capitalist, these businessmen sought to hand the responsibility over to the unwitting public, rather than deal with the repercussions of their manufacturing practices, or–god forbid–face government regulation. According to them, “People start pollution, [and] people can stop it.”

Surely Keep America Beautiful has gotten better since then; after all, the goal is admirable, right? Again, it only sounds great on paper. From the previous link:

In 1972 Oregon and Vermont enacted the nation’s first bottle bills requiring a 5-cent deposit on beer and soft drink containers. By 1974, when the California legislature began to debate whether to enact a container deposit law, KAB made a strategic decision to publicly oppose the bottle bill. Roger Powers, President of KAB testified against the California bottle bill before the state legislature in Sacramento. […]

The final blow to environmentalists was dealt during a speech at a July 1976 KAB Board of Directors meeting at the Biltmore Hotel in New York, when American Can Company chairman William F. May labeled bottle bill proponents “Communists” and called for a total KAB mobilization against the four bottle bill referenda on the ballot in November. Present during the speech were KAB’s Advisory Committee members, many of whom were the subject of May’s attack.

The story was picked up by Jack Anderson and aired on his national television show. On August 12, 1976, the EPA resigned from KAB’s board and by October 1976 more than a dozen environmental and citizen groups, including National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, League of Women Voters and Sierra Club disaffiliated from KAB. In November of that year voters approved bottle bills in Michigan and Maine. […]

In the 1990’s, KAB adopted yet another campaign slogan – “Let’s not waste the 1990’s” – which stressed the need to encourage citizens, municipal officials and civic leaders to “re-examine recycling’s capabilities and limitations.” The new campaign presented a 5-pronged solution to solving the problem of solid waste – source reduction, recycling, composting, incineration and sanitary landfilling.

KAB’s 1990’s slogan was new, but the message had changed little since Iron Eyes Cody warned that “People Start Pollution – People Can Stop It.” The promotional materials made no mention of policies such as recycled content requirements, mandatory recycling rates, bottle bills or other measurers that shift the burden of waste management and waste reduction from government to the producers of waste. […]

In an article in Biocycle , Former President of NRC and Manager of Market Development for Weyerhaeuser Recycling, Pete Grogan, wrote, “I find myself questioning the agenda behind the [$400k report funded by KAB which reached the conclusion that recycling and composting aren’t effective waste management methods]. . . The report reminds us that it is ‘cheaper’ to send solid waste to the landfill. Well, I can easily argue that tossing solid waste in the river is even cheaper.”

Keep America Beautiful may have little clout these days (though it is still affiliated with Waste Management, a company that owns and operates many of the country’s landfills), but the bulk of the damage has already been done. KAB is responsible for inventing and disseminating the picture of an all-powerful consumer in whose hands alone rests the health and future of the biosphere, and it’s been working at maintaining this fabrication for more than 60 years with the help of many an anti-environmental corporate sponsor. The image of Iron Eyes Cody shedding a single tear has been widely recognized by marketers and historians alike as one of the most successful ad campaigns ever conceived. We are living in the aftermath of this great lie.

Whether we like it or not, Keep America Beautiful was the beginning of modern conscious consumerism, eco-friendliness, and greenwashing. This is the heritage of the Zero Waste lifestyle movement. It’s founded on a NIMBY moral aesthetic where beautiful = good and ugly = bad. We gotta get away from this childish and reactionary way of thinking; it’s getting us nowhere fast. This brings us to the next part.

Direct Action

Direct action can be loosely defined as a political act that doesn’t rely on any outside system or institution to direct and sponsor it, and whose goal is more than just “raising awareness”. For instance, planting a community garden can be a direct action; so can smashing in the windows of a bank branch.

Martin Luther King Jr. can be quoted as having a definition:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

– Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Wikipedia has a less poetic and broader definition:

Direct action occurs when a group takes an action which is intended to reveal an existing problem, highlight an alternative, or demonstrate a possible solution to a social issue. This can include nonviolent and less often violent activities which target persons, groups, or property deemed offensive to the direct action participants. Examples of non-violent direct action (also known as nonviolent resistance or civil resistance) can include sit-ins, strikes,workplace occupations, blockades, hacktivism, etc., while violent direct action may include political violence, sabotage, property destruction, assaults, etc. By contrast, electoral politics, diplomacy, negotiation, and arbitrationare not usually described as direct action, as they are politically mediated. Non-violent actions are sometimes a form of civil disobedience, and may involve a degree of intentional law-breaking where persons place themselves in arrestable situations in order to make a political statement but other actions (such as strikes) may not violate criminal law.

The aim of direct action is to either obstruct another political agent or political organization from performing some practice to which the activists object; or to solve perceived problems which traditional societal institutions (governments, religious organizations or established trade unions) are not addressing to the satisfaction of the direct action participants.

Non-violent direct action has historically been an assertive regular feature of the tactics employed by social movements, including Mohandas Gandhi’s Indian Independence Movement and the African-American Civil Rights Movement.

In other words, direct action is necessarily confrontational.

The question is this: do we, as zero waste advocates, recognize the injustices of pollution, waste, and consumerism as being enough to warrant confrontation? Personally, I think so.

Littering as Direct Action

I argue that littering is a legitimate form of resistance against misguided litter laws, the influence of the waste and landfill lobby, and industrial-consumer-capitalism itself, which created this whole mess to begin with.

First of all, litter laws have only ever been about one thing: appearances. Maintaining the appearance of a clean and healthy world for those who can afford to live in areas where these laws are enforced, and where waste and recycling services and facilities exist; and maintaining the appearance of pollution being a problem perpetuated entirely by irresponsible consumers rather than the capitalist system that produces and pushes these products. I suggest that littering, by making trash and pollution visible, instead of hiding it in landfills, developing nations, Superfund sites, and the ocean’s gyres, we can ensure that it becomes more and more difficult for the average Westerner to ignore the problem. We can ensure that the elephant in the room is harder to forget.

If cloud computing is really just storing files and accessing them from someone else’s computer, then capitalist waste disposal methods are simply a form of “cloud” trash management: storing them on someone else’s land and polluting someone else’s ecosystem. Don’t make the mistake of believing that there is less polluting going on– it’s just harder to see.

So I say let every discarded coffee cup be like a gravestone: a reminder of all the casualties in this battle we’re waging against the natural world and our own health. Let plastic wrappers and crumpled foil be reminders that these artifacts exist, that it’s only a matter of where they will exist. Inspire a conversation not about where the trash ought to go, but why it was made in the first place; who sold it to us; whether it was truly useful or not; and what might it take to keep this from happening altogether.

Because cleaning up here means just putting the mess someplace else. And that’s not right.

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3 thoughts on “The Zero-Waste Case for Littering

  1. At first I thought you were crazy, but then I realize I do the very thing you are asking! (Nice Spock pic by the way.) My parents are tireless proponents for bottled water. Despite being a poor college grad, I offer repeatedly to buy a 400+ inline water filter for our house because I have the fortune to live in a bankrupt town with no good municipal water facility. As they resist to my complete amazement, I litter the house with their water bottles. I crush the bottles no more, letting them take more and more space in our home recycling. The hope is that they go mad with the plastic litter! I am a concerned daughter–viva la revolucion!

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    • I did something similar–though for far less commendable reasons–when I was in college. Nobody wanted to help take out the trash (or wash dishes or clean or…) so I’d often just leave it to overflow and fester until someone couldn’t handle it anymore. Thank god I barely have a sense of smell!

      As a tactic, it definitely gets people’s attention. It’s channeling that attention toward shaping minds that’s the hard part.

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  2. Pingback: People Will Not Buy Zero Waste Until They Can Afford It | Zero Waste Millennial

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