From Pariah to Palatable

Leo Mahe ’26 in Opinions | September 9, 2023

On the first anniversary of Earth Day in 1971, the “Crying Indian” ad campaign from the environmental organization, Keep America Beautiful (KAB), showcased an indigenous man distressed by the amount of trash around him. The advertisement concluded with the message: “People started pollution. People can stop it.” The clip pulled on the hearts of millions of Americans, many of whom felt a deep emotional connection to the single tear rolling down the indigenous man’s cheek. The advertisement won two Clio awards for its effectiveness as a public service announcement and, in the public eye, is almost entirely remembered fondly.
One year before the ad campaign aired, the first official Earth Day marked the largest single-day protest in history, with over 20 million participants seeking more regulations protecting the environment from those actively destroying it. To appease the public, the government passed bills such as the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts and established the Environmental Protection Agency. Following these successes, activists began to target single-use plastic bottles and the corporations that made them. 
At the time, bottle companies were beginning a transition to single-use plastic bottles. Yet by 1970, environmentalists knew that single-use plastics didn’t decompose but instead degraded into microplastics—plastic particulates that are linked to impaired development, birth defects, and cancer in children when ingested. Microplastics were deadly to animals, especially in the ocean, decreasing their appetites to the point of starvation. These tiny plastics absorb toxins and carcinogens, transporting them into humans’ bodies through food and air.
It seems only natural, then, that Keep America Beautiful would launch the campaign to fuel environmental action. However, there was one small problem: KAB was primarily funded by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, the same organizations that were transitioning to single-use plastics. In the 1960s, single-use plastics were taking the world by storm, moving into dozens of industries. Environmentalists had a strong case against plastic production, and the fact that single-use plastics were in their infancy made them even more vulnerable. With the success of the first Earth Day, plastic producers couldn’t take any chances. An early environmental shift would have lost bottling companies the billions of dollars in profits they made from the switch from expensive glass to cheap plastic. Meanwhile maintaining plastics’ place in production meant making trillions of dollars in future revenue. Attacking single-use plastics would hurt the profits of bottle companies funding KAB, an inherent conflict of interest for KAB. Coca-Cola might sponsor a multimillion-dollar plan to put recycling bins on the streets of Chicago, but they would never support a solution that would decrease their revenue. Bottle companies have regularly lobbied against plastic regulations, as reported by The Intercept; why would they suddenly support environmental action?
Unfortunately, KAB failed to advocate for real environmental action and helped popularize surface-level action. In fact, KAB advocated against real change, evidenced by their attack on bottle bills. Bottle bills require companies that sell bottled beverages to pay people who return their empty single-use plastic bottles. Although this typically just means getting 5 cents back per bottle, the ten states with bottle bills have a bottle recycling rate of around 60 percent, whereas others have a rate of just 24 percent. While most environmental movements were advocating for more bottle bills, KAB fought against them along with many of their corporate sponsors which The New York Times reports have been fighting against these bills for decades. Today, KAB and its sponsors focus on litter and recycling, both of which do not harm bottle companies’ profits. Instead, litter reduction and recycling only mitigate some of the problems with plastic production.
“The Crying Indian” ad campaign hijacked the Earth Day movement, turning the focus of well-intentioned environmentalists from systemic problems to small, irrelevant ones. Considering the organization’s views at the time, the seemingly innocent message from the ad that “People started pollution. People can stop it” is both useless and nefarious. This message centers the problem of plastic pollution around people throwing plastics into their surrounding environment and obscures the root cause of plastic pollution: the production and wide-scale use of plastics itself.
Even the advertisement’s anti-littering argument is flawed. Throwing single-use plastics into landfills instead of streets only means that people won’t see the plastic problem. Recycling did not exist at the time of the ad, so litter would go to landfills or incinerators. Landfills still leech microplastics into soil and rivers, and the plastics that are incinerated release microplastics into the air, potentially harming nearby populations. Now, leaving these microplastics to disintegrate on the streets is not a better solution, but picking up litter improves nothing but the landscape’s image. Outside of making people feel accomplished, ending littering is an ineffective solution to reducing plastic pollution’s harmful impact on humanity and the environment.
Yet, the ad’s success bumped environmentalists off the track of reducing plastic production and towards reducing personal waste. Environmental agencies slowed their agendas to make room for KAB, welcoming it as a legitimate agency before realizing years later the malice behind its actions. When KAB entered the mainstream, other organizations weren’t aware of the source of their funding or the purposes behind their messaging. It only became clear later on, when KAB acted directly against bottle bills, that the organization was more interested in pleasing their sponsors than improving the environment. According to the Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC), an environmental organization, ads from KAB “frame and visualize the problem as litter, not plastic production, and they suck environmentalist energy into picking it up.” The ads pit themselves against environmental agencies in what the PPC called “a beautiful if evil strategy.” KAB took the legislative momentum from the successful Earth Day campaign and shoved it into minor consumer-level change.
Today, KAB’s crowning achievements involve cleaning initiatives and recycling bin accessibility. Albeit a positive effort, these measures mask the many industries profiting from plastic production, such as KAB’s sponsors. KAB centers the blame for plastic pollution on the lack of recycling accessibility and personal action. While many focus on the fact that not enough people recycle, few people discuss how just 22 percent of #1 plastics, the most recyclable kind, are recycled after being brought to recycling facilities. Thousands of volunteers interested in making a difference sign up for initiatives, such as beach cleaning or trash sorting, that have little impact. Meanwhile, dozens of environmental organizations now support KAB as a legitimate agency. Outside of their abject harm to environmentalism, KAB has created a wave of meaningless advocacy that will not reduce the environmental impact of plastics.
Although Keep America Beautiful is not alone in successfully brainwashing the public, it has contributed to devastating environmental harm. The U.S. generated 2.9 million tons of plastic waste before the first Earth Day in 1970, a number which has since increased to 30 million tons a year. Recycling, while better than a garbage dump, has ultimately acted as a convenient cop-out to make the public feel better about purchasing plastics. Plastic manufacturers advocate for recycling because it allows for increasing production without protest from the public; today, 8 to 10 percent of annual fossil fuel usage comes from plastic production, and production is estimated to quadruple by 2050. Plastic reduction is no longer a central concern among Americans, and plastics have become a staple of human life. The conversation around plastic pollution has focused on personal responsibility—to “be the bigger person” and recycle. Recycling bins and plastic straw bans aren’t going to change the amount of annual plastic waste; sweeping bans on more widely used plastics are needed to make any meaningful change. Small actions are better than nothing, but the strong resistance against just moving away from plastic straws—an action that would reduce plastic waste by only 0.02 percent—highlights the modern indifference towards plastic pollution.
Although the “Crying Indian” ad campaign is remembered fondly by many as the reason they started picking up trash, it also contributed to a push to turn plastic production into a consumer issue instead of a producer one. Keep America Beautiful has harmed the environmental movement with its advertising efforts, compromising environmental change by protecting its corporate donors. Even now, it is unclear whether Keep America Beautiful’s motives have changed; the organization advocates for cleanups, recycling, and urban forestry while continuing to ignore the root causes of the plastic problem. It has also partnered with environmentally questionable corporations, such as Marlboro, Nestlè, and the International Bottled Water Association.
Looking past Keep America Beautiful, the environmental movement needs to stop considering mitigation an effective measure against plastic waste. Ocean cleanups might save a few turtles, but they won’t stop plastic corporations from destroying the environment and significantly harming human health. Instead, the movement should shift its focus toward reducing and eventually ending plastic production. Bioplastics are fighting a losing battle against a century of plastic innovation and need funding from corporations and the government to become successful. Although it will be challenging, perhaps we can achieve what we failed to do in 1970 and end plastic waste altogether. Focusing public pressure on plastic bans can both create government action and force the hands of corporations. If this happens, perhaps we can finally solve the plastic problem.