The national anti-littering group Keep America Beautiful (KAB) recently announced that it was teaming up with the world's largest beverage company, Coca-Cola, to hand out 82 Recycling Bin Grants to community groups and local governments. "We hope this program will encourage communities to expand recycling," said April Crow, sustainable packaging manager at Coke.
It's easy to feel good about this initiative, and a similar one with bottled water giant Nestlé Waters. Isn't this how private enterprise is supposed to work--big companies using their profits to support the public good? With corporate help, KAB (best known for its "crying Indian" anti-littering public service announcements featuring "Iron Eyes" Cody) and its 23 state affiliates in 2009 leveraged community volunteer time to collect 102,000 batteries, recycle 6.9 million pounds of electronics, retire 12,300 derelict automobiles, and haul in a whopping 243 million PET bottles.
Unfortunately, despite coordinating all that good work, KAB -- and the bottlers' support for recycling -- are not as simple as they seem. Their mutual aim has been to push a "people pollute" message. That takes the focus away from the "producer responsibility" movement that has taken hold in Europe and Asia, as well as the bottle bills (which hold container manufacturers responsible for collection programs) that have so far been enacted in only 11 states. Bottle bill states have on average plastic bottle recycling rates more than double that of those without them. It's an obvious point, but the people behind KAB and its successful Great American Cleanup are the very same ones profiting from throwaway (although "recyclable") beverage bottles.
In part because of the massive national appetite for water in bottles (not redeemable under many existing bottle bills), the national recycling rate of plastic bottles has declined precipitously to just 23% annually. Water bottles are among the top items rounded up in any river cleanup, and beverage containers are variously reported at 30 to 50% of the litter stream. But you won't find this information on KAB's website, where the mission is, "To engage individuals to take greater responsibility for improving their community environments."
One definition of a corporate front group or "greenwasher" is that its supporters' agendas are seemingly at odds with the ideals -- clear skies, pristine landscapes, healthy food -- depicted in the glossy brochures and TV ads. KAB, with major support from bottlers, tobacco companies, solid waste managers and packaging firms, would seem to fit the category.
Launched in 1953, KAB's early years were spent partnered with Lady Bird Johnson (1965) and TV's Lassie (1967) on campaigns that pushed the notion that "every litter bit hurts." The emphasis, from the beginning, was on personal, not corporate, responsibility for cleaning up waste.
Five-cent-deposit bottle bills were first enacted, by Oregon and Vermont, in 1972. When California proposed an ultimately successful bottle bill in 1974, KAB President Roger Powers testified against the legislation. Then, at a 1976 KAB board of directors meeting in New York, American Can Company chairman William F. May referred to bottle bill supporters as "communists" and called for a full-court KAB press against the state initiatives. This propelled the EPA off of KAB's board, and many environmental groups followed suit.
You could say this is all ancient history, and that KAB has reformed since then, and in a sense you'd be right. KAB today neither supports nor opposes bottle bills, President and CEO Matthew McKenna (a former PepsiCo vice president) told me. "We are officially neutral on state affiliates' approach to deposit legislation," he said. Why not just support bottle bills? I asked. "As you go across the country, there's no complete confirmation that they've achieved what they set out to achieve," he said.
McKenna also told me he wasn't familiar with the European "polluter pays" movement, which now has a U.S. foothold in Maine.
KAB spokesman Robert Wallace said that the group takes no stand on bottle bills because they are "intensely political." Asked who funds KAB, he said, "The beverage companies are certainly right up there." Indeed they are. Pepsi, the second-largest soft drink bottler, contributed at least $500,000 in 2009. That's on a par with the contribution from Nestlé Waters and Waste Management, the largest U.S. operator of landfills. Coca-Cola is a major contributor, too, as is Phillip Morris. The tobacco monolith funds KAB's campaign to clean up littered cigarette butts, which in practice does some good but also deflects responsibility for that massive environmental problem from corporations to individual smokers and volunteers.
Is it a stretch to conclude that some of these companies would like to see cans, bottles and butts either headed for landfills or recycled on somebody else's dime? KAB's approach is stealthier than it used to be, said Pat Franklin, founder of the environmental nonprofit Container Recycling Institute. KAB doesn't talk about littering as much as it used to, she said, instead embracing the "reduce, reuse and recycle" concept. "We have further stepped up our role in recycling," Wallace said in an email.
"Also, they don't openly oppose bottle bills anymore," Franklin said. "It's a much more subtle opposition. They're trying to control the debate over litter, and they de-emphasize the percentage of the litter stream that is beverage containers by using fuzzy math."
KAB almost did control the national debate over litter. The country's largest recycling advocacy nonprofit, the Washington, D.C.-based National Recycling Coalition, ran into financial difficulty last summer (with just $619 in the bank) and put it up to its members whether to merge with KAB or fold. It chose the latter, with, according to Earth911.com, opponents "concerned that KAB's board includes representatives of corporations including beverage companies, restaurants, paint manufacturers, waste management and other industries."
Greenpeace, said spokesman Kurt Davies, has been targeting KAB for years as it "directs the responsibility away from corporate America and onto the dirty litterbugs." But Davies also says that the times may be changing -- he points to Coca-Cola's energy-efficient vending machines, and to its huge new PET bottle-to-bottle recycling plant, the world's largest, in South Carolina. These days, bottle bills could actually be in Coke's interest, because they provide more raw material to recycle. But Coca-Cola, whose cans and bottles carry a "please recycle" message, did not respond to a request for comment.