Earlier this month, the New York Times posted a video op-ed correctly debunking “The Great Recycling Con.” According to the Times, the plastics industry has sold generations of consumers a lie about just how much of the waste they produce could be recycled in order to create the false possibility of eco-friendly, guilt-free consumption.
It comes painfully close, but misses the full story. The true “Great Recycling Con” runs far deeper than lies about which products can and cannot be recycled; it is an ongoing political battle waged by waste-generating corporations against the public to evade regulation, shift responsibility for environmental destruction onto consumers, and protect the ecocidal and highly profitable business model that lies at the heart of industrial capitalism.
After World War II, Americans sought to leave the austerity of war behind and enthusiastically embraced mass consumption. We doubled down on frozen TV dinners, bottled soft drinks, new cars, and lots of other stuff.
It was a marker that separated America from the grayscale, empty grocery shelves we associated with the Soviet Union. Mass consumption was choice; it was freedom.
In 1959, Richard Nixon flew to Moscow to personally flaunt the possibilities of American consumerism to Nikita Khrushchev, in the infamous Kitchen Debate.
As product consumption became increasingly tied to the American Dream, industry seized the ethos of excess to sell more and more stuff for more and more profit. Vance Packard, a prophetic journalist and sociologist, criticized advertising as an industry and a strategy led by “persuaders” who preyed on consumer vulnerabilities to sell more, more, more of their own product, promising social status and fulfillment.
In 1960, Packard published The Waste Makers, calling attention to a number of waste-making practices by corporations, perhaps most notably the concept of planned obsolescence. According to Packard, manufacturers intentionally “design death rates into products,” creating an ever-shorter ticking time bomb of waste, so that consumers would have no choice but to buy more and buy again.
Corporate profits soared, and a new industry of disposable products, built on the very concept of waste, fundamentally changed American life and corporate economics.
Jump ahead a few years to 1967, and the future was “plastics.”
“Keep America Beautiful”
But amid consumerism’s Golden Age, corporate America was busy staving off a number of threats. In the 1960s, the counterculture movement challenged a number of prevailing social norms, including the status symbols of owning lots of stuff.
But in addition to the greater cultural battle, corporate executives were also waging a political-economic battle against an early labor-environmentalist movement that threatened to look behind the curtain of the profitable model of postwar consumerism and possibly regulate the ecologically destructive practices that it relied upon.
As early as 1953, as Heather Rogers points out in Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, nearly twenty years before the first Earth Day, dairy farmers in Vermont noticed their cows choking and dying on glass beer bottles that had been tossed into their grazing fields. Consequently, they organized and passed a state law banning not just the act of tossing the bottles, but the actual sale of such bottles by commercial businesses.
Presumably anticipating similar regulations around the country, and fearing a labor-environmentalist coalition challenging their practices of producing and selling products that quickly turn to waste, major corporations under threat responded with a series of “greenwashing” campaigns to derail environmentalists and labor.
Among them, that same year, as Rogers observes, the American Can Company and the Owens-Illinois Glass Company recruited a number of other corporations specializing in disposable products, including Coca-Cola, Richfield Oil Corporation, and the Dixie Cup Company, to form Keep America Beautiful, a nonprofit, pseudo-environmentalist entity that espoused environmental stewardship as a civic virtue.
Drawing on notions of “good citizenship” and inventing the concept of littering as a literal sin against nature, the group used symbols of white, bourgeois virtue, most famously Susan Spotless, and drew on the stereotype of the Noble Indian, shedding a single tear for what is implied to be a consumer-led continuation of indigenous genocide, to shift responsibility for waste management from corporations to consumers. “People start pollution,” Keep America Beautiful would tell Americans, “people can stop it.”
And the group’s propaganda campaigns worked. In the six years after their first major advertising partnership with the Ad Council, the percentage of soda drinks sold in disposable packaging quadrupled, from 3 percent to 12 percent. Ten years later, it was near 70 percent.
Rather than corporations restricting their own production of disposable materials and eating into their profit, American consumers would now shame each other into managing industry’s cheap waste products. It was an insidious sleight of hand that reframed America’s growing waste problem as one not of corporate excess, but of irresponsible consumer choices and individual lifestyles.
Sixteen years later, after defeating a renewal of the Vermont law in 1957 and passing anti-littering ordinances across the country, Keep America Beautiful created an offspring group to champion a newer form of individualized mass waste management: recycling. An alternative to “reducing” or “reusing,” industry giants quickly took to the practice, which allowed for customers to continue buying, now guilt-free, and corporations to continue evading the scrutiny of regulators or blame from environmentalists. The group poured corporate money into recycling research and development, opening facilities across the country to introduce American municipalities and consumers to the new form of corporate-friendly waste management.
Keep America Beautiful still exists, and with other industry-funded anti-littering and pro-recycling nonprofits, it continues to steer the public’s attention away from corporate regulation and toward the practice of individual recycling. According to reporting by the Intercept, Coca-Cola’s philanthropic arm gave over $600,000, considered a tax-deductible charitable gift, to one such group, the Recycling Partnership, in 2017. The group not only oversells recycling’s popularity, but, according to an expert, continues to oversell the ecological benefits and possibilities of recycling itself.
The tragedy of the Great Recycling Con is not just that corporations have gotten away with planetary murder and passed the costs of cleaning up their mess onto consumers. At this point, it is not a question of fair labor distribution at all. It is a question of survival.
Individual recycling alone is simply not sufficient to save the planet. Even the most diligent and civically minded recyclers, the modern-day Susan Spotlesses, face structural obstacles to minimizing their waste footprint. And even if we were all Susan Spotlesses and the recycling systems worked perfectly, the means of production of American industrial capitalism will continue to generate an unending supply of waste-to-be in the production process.
We have no choice but to take on the producers of waste.
Who’s Killing the Planet?
On December 3, the New York City Department of Corrections announced that it will introduce Meatless Mondays in its prisons and jails in part to minimize its institutional carbon footprint. Instead of challenging the agricultural corporations producing ecocidal levels of methane emissions, the state has chosen to place the responsibility of managing methane emissions on people who are incarcerated and already have no choice in what food to consume.
Drawing on Keep America Beautiful’s tactic of equating littering with sin, a spokesperson even framed the project as a way for incarcerated New Yorkers to “start making amends for what [they’ve] done in life.”
As we enter into a new climate age and our politics adapt accordingly, corporations and the capitalist states they control will assuredly cast blame — and stake our planetary survival — on the most vulnerable among us, whether that be the incarcerated or working-class consumers. Anyone but themselves. But the public, much less the most marginalized among us, has not gotten us into this mess, and unfortunately, private citizens acting individually cannot get us out.
We have an obligation to keep our focus on the owners of the means of waste production — on those who can be coerced by state regulation into making the grand-scale, systemic changes required for any climate mitigation.