The Litter Myth : Throughline There is more waste in the world today than at any time in history, and the responsibility for keeping the environment clean too often falls on individuals instead of manufacturers. But, why us? And why this feeling of responsibility? This week, how one organization changed the American public's relationship with waste and who is ultimately responsible for it.

The Litter Myth

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The average American chucks a hefty 4 1/2 pounds of trash a day.

JACOB SOBOROFF: I think we can do a little bit better. Americans and our recycling habits have a lot of room for improvement.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The garbage reality is bigger than you might realize.





UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: Litter problems on the streets and sidewalks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: People are still throwing trash out indiscriminately. I think it's disgusting.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: People start pollution; people can stop it.



You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


Where we go back in time.

ABDELFATAH: To understand the present.

OK, I'm about to reveal a big secret - Ramtin Arablouei hates recycling.


ARABLOUEI: It's not that I hate recycling; it's that I hate the pressure everyone puts on me to recycle or, like, compost.

ABDELFATAH: OK, wait - let's give everyone the backstory.


ABDELFATAH: A few weeks ago, we're sitting in the office, and you walk in with a complaint.

ARABLOUEI: So in my freezer at home, there's, like, half a dozen Ziploc bags filled with chicken bones and food scraps. It's nasty. And, like, it's the last thing I want to see when I open up the freezer.

ABDELFATAH: And in fairness, I don't compost; I probably should. I recycle, but I probably don't sort it correctly all the time.

ARABLOUEI: You and everyone else.


ARABLOUEI: So it's super frustrating. And I have to ask the question - like, why is it on us to keep the planet clean, when the manufacturers are making these products that are polluting the planet in the first place?

ABDELFATAH: Which is a fair question because they're polluting probably a lot more than the average person is, right?


ABDELFATAH: But still, when Ramtin brought this up and he basically said, you know, recycling is a joke. We don't need to do it. It's not on us. We all were, like, very on guard. We were like, whoa, whoa, whoa - take it easy, man.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah. But eventually, I was able to convince folks that it was at least worth looking at.

ABDELFATAH: So I made some calls, talked to some experts and came across some pretty interesting answers.


HEATHER ROGERS: So it all started with chicken bones.


ABDELFATAH: This is Heather Rogers, a journalist who wrote a book about garbage.

ROGERS: Called "Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life Of Garbage." It's a social, political history of garbage in the U.S.

ABDELFATAH: And she's thought a lot about this question that tortures Ramtin - how did the responsibility for keeping the environment clean fall on us, the consumers, rather than the companies that make the waste?

ARABLOUEI: So to find out why and when this guilt-ridden feeling began, Heather says we have to go back to a time before there was so much waste.


ROGERS: I wanted to understand. Like, if you're sitting - you order a takeout meal, and you're sitting there after you're done, and there's the bag and the container and the napkins - I wanted to know how did that become normal? Like, how did that become OK? Because it's, like, very different than the way people ate and handled food 100 years ago.

ARABLOUEI: So what about, like, the 1940s, 1950s? How did people eat and drink things then?

ROGERS: You would drink your soda or your beer, your milk, and then take the bottle back to the store, or the milk delivery person would pick it back up the next day from your doorstep or whatever. And that was the norm.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Every day, we place our empty milk bottles on the doorstep, knowing that by tomorrow, our empties will have been replaced by full bottles of milk.

ROGERS: And slowly that starts to change. So what happens is - and there's all these forces that come together after World War II. And they've been kind of, like, building before that, but it's just - you just have this, like, rush of consumption.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: First thing I'm going to do after the war is get a vacuum cleaner and a maid to rent

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I want a car. I don't care how much it costs.

ROGERS: And this massive capacity for manufacturing.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Yes - cars, radios, vacuum cleaners, nylons, juicy steaks. It sounds almost like a dream.


ARABLOUEI: So imagine you're a beverage-maker at that time - selling soda, milk, stuff like that. With all of the buying going on after World War II, you're probably thinking, how am I going to maximize my profits? And then you're thinking, the old way of reusing glass bottles probably doesn't make much economic sense anymore.

ROGERS: There's this one plastics industry conference. I think it was in 1956. And one of the speakers at the conference looks out at the crowd, at all the plastics manufacturers in the room, and he says to them, your future is in the garbage wagon.

ARABLOUEI: Think about that for a second. There's a group of plastic-makers sitting in a room, who are trying to get in on this, to break into the bottling industry. And they're being told that, for them to make it rich, their products needed to be actual trash.

ROGERS: It doesn't get more clear than that. There's this real consciousness of, like, if we can get people to throw things away, they will buy more stuff. And if you think about it, it's brilliant.

ARABLOUEI: So here's the idea - you get people to throw things away by giving them products in a single-use, disposable container. And it's not just plastics, but also disposable glass, paper - all of it goes into the trash.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: You ask your mother; she knows. She knows that Dixie Cups save her a lot of extra glasses to wash. Dixie Cups - America's No. 1 paper cup.


ROGERS: People didn't automatically know what to do with disposable bottles. And there's a tremendous amount of education that had to go into teaching us how to throw things away. So, like, there were ads in magazines that were, like, instructions.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: After supper, you scrape your plate into the garbage bag. Then you take the full bag outside and deposit it in your garbage can.

ROGERS: You are so used to this thing being reusable. That's what makes sense. But then they had to teach people that this is something that you can throw away.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: And, of course, the garbage should be taken outside every evening.

ROGERS: It's, like, the invention, the formulation, of the idea of garbage.


ABDELFATAH: By the early 1950s, Americans started to see everything as garbage, including the glass bottles they used to reuse over and over again.

ROGERS: And what was happening is people were throwing glass bottles - like, they'd be driving on the freeway and - or a highway, and they'd throw their glass bottle out the window, and it would smash and break and end up in the field. And the cows would be grazing, and they would ingest shards of glass and die. And so these dairy farmers were like, this is ridiculous.

ABDELFATAH: So in 1953, the Vermont State Legislature passed a ban on disposable glass bottles. And the packaging industry saw this one little law by this one little state as a serious threat. So they got together to form an organization called Keep America Beautiful.

ROGERS: Yeah. I mean, it sounds very - Keep America Beautiful - like, what could be wrong with that?

ARABLOUEI: The strange story of Keep America Beautiful when we come back.


ARABLOUEI: In 1953, a few months after Vermont banned single-use bottles, the packaging companies who were determined to keep laws like this from spreading started to get really organized.

ROGERS: They got together with Coca-Cola and other companies like Dixie Cup to start this organization, Keep America Beautiful.

FINIS DUNAWAY: Well, Keep America Beautiful is an anti-litter organization that was founded in the 1950s by beveraging (ph) and packaging corporations.

ABDELFATAH: This is Finis Dunaway.

DUNAWAY: And I'm a professor of history at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, and I research and write about U.S. history, environmentalism, cultural history and visual culture.

ABDELFATAH: These companies couldn't deny that disposable packages were in fact creating a litter problem. So they decided to get in front of that crisis in order to shape public opinion about litter.

DUNAWAY: The impetus for Keep America Beautiful was to try to find a way to fight the so-called litter crisis, or litter menace, but to do so in a way that would not hold those companies responsible for causing that crisis in the first place.

ABDELFATAH: Heather says this was a strategic flipping of the script.

ROGERS: The problem wasn't the garbage itself; the problem was what individuals did with it. It's not garbage; it's litter, and it's litter because you're putting it where it shouldn't be. And that's the problem.

ABDELFATAH: That was the ultimate mission behind Keep America Beautiful - for every American to believe it was their personal responsibility to keep the environment clean.

ROGERS: To take everyone's focus off of, where are these cans and bottles coming from in the first place, to, what are we doing with them? We're being so short-sighted and selfish that we're not handling this stuff responsibly.


ARABLOUEI: Major environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society also recognize that waste was a big problem. So they joined Keep America Beautiful as advisers.

ABDELFATAH: So with the environmental movement behind them, Keep America Beautiful went full steam ahead. They teamed up with schools and government agencies to help spread the anti-litter doctrine. They created free pamphlets and brochures signs and print advertisements.

DUNAWAY: So they would, for example, do before-and-after photographs of, say, a park. And a family's arrived to have a picnic. And the park is, you know, seems to be clean. And then they leave, and they've thoughtlessly disposed of all their litter, left it behind so it becomes this unsightly eyesore.

ROGERS: I don't know if you guys remember, but in "Mad Men," there was this one scene where they're having - the family's having a picnic. And when it's over...


JON HAMM: (As Don Draper) Check their hands.

ROGERS: ...Betty, the mom, like, picks up the blanket and just, like, throws all the garbage onto the grass and, like, folds up the blanket and, like, goes (laughter).

ARABLOUEI: It's no big deal.

ROGERS: (Laughter) But it's like if, you know, you're not used to garbage, like, that's somehow - like, why wouldn't you?

ABDELFATAH: Right. What do you do with it?

ROGERS: Yeah, yeah.

DUNAWAY: And so there's before-and-after shots of people acting irresponsibly in nature, in public spaces, and the message was that every litter bit hurts. And they start using this term litter bug to describe what it is that these individuals are doing and how their thoughtlessness, their carelessness is, you know, marring these spaces, making them less attractive and enjoyable for their fellow citizens.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Bit by bit by litter bit, every litter bit hurts.

ARABLOUEI: Keep America Beautiful positioned itself as a beautification group. And by the 1960s, their biggest marketing tool was the public service announcement, the PSA.

DUNAWAY: And in these ads, the images were always white Americans, presumably middle-class emblems of who were supposed to be the proper citizens in the nation.


DUNAWAY: They shift, though, around 1964 from this focus on citizenship values in general to make it a much more private family affair. And they adopt this new figure for this campaign in the beginning of 1964 called Susan Spotless, which is just a fantastic name.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Susan Spotless) Daddy, you forgot - every litter bit hurts.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Right, Susan Spotless. Every litter bit thoughtlessly dropped blemishes a bit of America - our highways...

DUNAWAY: And she was a white girl wearing a white dress, white socks, white shoes, white headband, and, of course, her dress was completely spotless. And Susan was there to give the finger wag to chastise irresponsible adults, including her own mother and father.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Susan Spotless, singing) Please, please, don't be a litter bug 'cause every litter bit hurts.

ARABLOUEI: To make these PSAS, Keep America Beautiful worked with the Ad Council, a public service marketing firm. You might remember Smokey Bear.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Smokey Bear) Remember - only you can prevent forest fires.

ARABLOUEI: That was the Ad Council, too. And their PSA strategy was working. By the 1960s, Keep America Beautiful claimed 70 million members. That's more than a third of all Americans at that time. And remember that Vermont law banning single-use glass bottles - well, Keep America Beautiful accomplished its mission on that front, too.

ROGERS: No other laws like the law in Vermont were passed again. So it was, like, extremely effective. And the Vermont law was allowed to expire a few years after it was passed.


ABDELFATAH: The second half of the '60s saw a growing counterculture movement that was only getting louder. Young Americans were rebelling against conformity, war, white supremacy and consumerism. All of this meant that Keep America Beautiful Susan Spotless was becoming more and more irrelevant. And, honestly, so was litter.

DUNAWAY: By 1969, you have increasing reports of environmental crisis. There's a major oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif., in early '69. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland catches fire.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown, Cleveland citizens joke grimly. He decays.

DUNAWAY: There was this sense that air pollution, water pollution, other sort of problems were becoming much more ubiquitous and all encompassing. And in fact, in the time leading up to Earth Day 1970, which was the first celebration of Earth Day...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: This is a CBS News special - Earth Day - a question of survival.

DUNAWAY: ...A lot of activists began holding events. So they were very much putting the blame on corporations and they were saying that you need to take responsibility for this. This is part of the reason why we have not just litter, but pollution and a whole host of other wasteful practices.

ABDELFATAH: Keep America Beautiful was well aware of these developments and decided that their focus on litter was too limited. They had to respond to this cultural shift, so they took their marketing efforts to a whole new level and hired a fancy New York ad agency.

ROGERS: And the ad agency is like, you guys need to change your message, and you need to change your aesthetic. Otherwise, you're going to become irrelevant. So this ad agency comes up, essentially, with this idea of the Crying Indian.

ABDELFATAH: The Crying Indian ad was broadcast on national television in 1971.


ROGERS: It's got, you know, this Native American, buckskin-clad Native American guy with long braids.

DUNAWAY: He's got his long braids, his feather, and he's paddling through a river.

ROGERS: And there's, like, trash floating in the water, and he goes past this big factory with smoke - like, dark smoke coming out the smokestacks.

DUNAWAY: Pollution emanating from smokestacks...

ROGERS: He pulls his canoe up onto the land. This blonde woman throws this bag of fast food out her window.

DUNAWAY: It lands right on the foot of his beaded moccasins.

ROGERS: And then the camera goes right to his face, and it zooms in, and there's this tear.

DUNAWAY: One single tear that just flows down his face...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country.

DUNAWAY: And some people don't.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: And some people don't.

ROGERS: People start pollution.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: People start pollution.


ABDELFATAH: The Crying Indian and the tear that made history - when we come back.


RAFAEL MARCUROSO: This is Rafael Marcuroso (ph) from San Francisco, Calif., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: So 1971 - how old were you?

RANDI KAPLAN: I was born in 1957.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: (Laughter) You were 14.

KAPLAN: I was 14 in 1971.

ARABLOUEI: This is THROUGHLINE producer Laine talking to their mom Randi Kaplan.

KAPLAN: And I - we watched our television living room, and I remember seeing that face. And it was just the most sad, sad face, and I remember, as a little kid, feeling so bad for that man's face. And then when that tear came out, I can seriously remember sitting in the living room and feeling a tear come out of my eye. That tear definitely spoke to me.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: It's so powerful, and make - and, like, it makes you feel guilty. It makes you feel like you are totally culpable in all of this, not just the litter.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah. We - you are the person throwing the trash on the Native American person's feet and making him cry.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: (Laughter) Totally.

KAPLAN: I felt responsible, so it made me more conscious of the fact that we had to do our part on an individual basis to make sure that America remained beautiful and that the natural beauty wasn't destroyed.

ARABLOUEI: This Crying Indian ad clearly had an impact on Laine's mom, but she wasn't alone. It became legendary in the moment. And you might be wondering, why was a crying Native American man the face of this new campaign?

DINA GILIO-WHITAKER: The ecological Indian stereotype is just one in a long series of images and tropes that misrepresent American Indian people. That begins, really, with European contact, when they first started calling us savages.

ARABLOUEI: This is Dina Gilio-Whitaker. She is a lecturer of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos. She's also a member of the Sinixt band of the Colville Confederated Tribes. Dina says that after generations of genocide, containment and military defeat, the U.S. started to write a new narrative about Native people.

GILIO-WHITAKER: The disappearing Indian - so natives are vanishing, a vanishing race - comes to dominate the cultural landscape of the U.S. And since we're disappearing and we are now safe, we're no longer a threat. We become the noble savages.

ABDELFATAH: The noble savage - the idea that American Indians were a primitive but proud disappearing race - captured the imagination of 20th century America and became the way native people were characterized in movies...


CANDY CANDIDO: (As Indian Chief) Teachum (ph) pale-faced brother all about red man.



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Before the white man came to this great continent, it was inhabited by a stalwart race of people known as Indians. Though they were all brothers...

ABDELFATAH: ...And, thanks to Keep America Beautiful, in advertising.

GILIO-WHITAKER: So we have the new version of the noble savage, and it's this Crying Indian, who is, you know - evidently, he is crying - well, he's obviously crying for his past, but he's also, you know, crying for what Americans are doing to the environment that, you know, native people would never have done or something. We can imagine all kinds of things that are behind that, but yeah. So this is the ecological Indian stereotype. It's just the new incarnation of the noble savage.

ABDELFATAH: Keep America Beautiful understood the power of the noble savage narrative, so they used it.

DUNAWAY: That's how we can understand how Keep America Beautiful go from Susan Spotless - you know, this very bland admonishment against litter - to using a figure that provided a way to offer a resistant narrative to what America represented.

GILIO-WHITAKER: And like all stereotypes, there is truth in it, but it manifests in a way that is filled with all kinds of other confusions and misnomers. It's a really problematic image for us.

DUNAWAY: He's meant to be seen as this figure who is like a ghost who's emerged from the past, and in many ways, he's here to visit the present, to see what has happened to his land and also to haunt people who live here now who are supposed to ask, you know, searching questions about what has happened. And the fact that he doesn't speak during the whole ad, you know, also connotes his powerlessness.

ARABLOUEI: Because that voice you hear at the end...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Some people have a deep abiding respect...

ARABLOUEI: It isn't the Indian. It's some omniscient narrator giving voice to what you, the viewer, are supposed to feel watching the Crying Indian stumble upon what's happened to the natural environment.

ABDELFATAH: And there's something else you should know - something that makes the entire Crying Indian ad even weirder - and it has to do with the Crying Indian himself.

DUNAWAY: I'll go ahead and do the reveal now - that he was not Indigenous, as he claimed to be throughout his entire life, but in fact was born to parents - one was Italian, and one was Sicilian.

ROGERS: (Laughter) Wait. So we have to dissect this a little bit because this guy, who was at the center of this Crying Indian ad, was himself not American Indian. He was not. He was - I think he was Italian.

DUNAWAY: His real name was Espera Oscar de Corti, I believe.

ROGERS: His stage name was Iron Eyes Cody.

DUNAWAY: The actor Iron Eyes Cody was a very well-known Hollywood actor. He appeared - I don't know the total count, but roughly 100 different westerns.


DUNAWAY: He also would do guest appearances on Western TV shows like "Bonanza" and "Gunsmoke" and things like that.

GILIO-WHITAKER: He was part of a wave of Sicilian immigrants that landed in Louisiana.

DUNAWAY: Later, he moved out to California, along with his brothers, and became an actor, worked his way up and, at some point, began calling himself Iron Eyes Cody and did all kinds of things outside of cinema to reinforce his claim of Indian-ness. So he even published books that were about hand signals used by Native Americans - really, in his life on and off screen, tried to present himself as an authentic representative of native peoples.

GILIO-WHITAKER: He takes it on as a full identity. Like, he's...

ARABLOUEI: Like, all the time - walking around, go to sleep, gets up in the morning...

GILIO-WHITAKER: Right. He lives it.


GILIO-WHITAKER: Yeah, he lives it. He dresses it.

DUNAWAY: I recall seeing a photograph of him in the White House in the late '70s with Jimmy Carter, and he even put a headdress on Carter and, you know...

ARABLOUEI: Wait. He put a headdress on Carter?

DUNAWAY: On Carter, yeah. You can find that on the Internet.

ARABLOUEI: And then there's that one single tear flowing tragically down the cheek of Iron Eyes Cody.

DUNAWAY: Apparently, he refused to do this at first or didn't want to cry because he said real Indians don't cry.

ARABLOUEI: So he concocted this story that it would be inauthentic for him to cry, which was absurd enough. And to top it off...

DUNAWAY: He didn't actually cry. It was glycerin, I believe, that was used to create. So it's a phony tear done by a phony Native American for what we could think of as a phony public service announcement that's actually, you know, benefiting the interest of the corporations behind it.


ABDELFATAH: For the corporations behind Keep America Beautiful, this ad was a huge success. When we come back - how the impact of that ad is still everywhere we look.


ELIJAH COX: Hi. This is Elijah Cox from Chicago, Ill., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ARABLOUEI: By the end of 1971, the Crying Indian had been branded into the American mind.

DUNAWAY: Local TV stations were writing into the Ad Council to say that they needed replacement tapes because they were running it so often that, you know, it was wearing down, and they needed a new copy.

ABDELFATAH: Keep America Beautiful even made a second version of the ad in 1975, this time with Iron Eyes Cody on horseback. And while they continued to convince the consumer that the environmental crisis was their fault and their responsibility, they were actively fighting against pro-environmental regulations. This caused environmental groups to abandon Keep America Beautiful.

ROGERS: Keep America Beautiful is the first of the corporate greenwashing front groups.

DUNAWAY: You know, deflecting attention from corporations and really using these ideas to prop up their own unsustainable agenda...

ABDELFATAH: Even with the opposition of environmental groups, Keep America Beautiful continued on with its campaign and policy agenda. And it's still around today. It's safe to say we've really internalized their message.

ROGERS: It's like, if you're walking down the street today and somebody throws a wrapper on the sidewalk, people feel no reservations about telling that person that they should pick up that wrapper and put it in the garbage can. And it's like, we're not saying, why is there a wrapper? Why is there this wrapper that can be thrown away? We're saying, this person's a bad guy, which is really profound.

ARABLOUEI: Look. Recycling is good, and we should all watch how much waste we produce. But the question is, at what point is our due diligence as individuals distracting us from the much bigger problems concerning our environment? Which takes us back to those chicken bones in my freezer waiting to be composted and why we meticulously sort our paper and plastic so they can be properly recycled - are we missing the bigger picture? Heather says yes.

ROGERS: It's this big distraction. You know, yeah, it's better to recycle some things than throw them away, but again, it just takes us away from the deeper question that's really going to address the amount of pollution and waste that we're creating, which is, what are the decisions that manufacturers are making? Why are they making those? And what kinds of changes can we implement that will alter how they're using materials and how they're polluting? You know, those are the questions that we need to be asking and answering. We are not, like, the source of the bulk of the problem, and, like, we still don't talk about it. That cultural narrative has stayed intact. It's really strong.


ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah, and you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ARABLOUEI: This episode was produced by me.

ABDELFATAH: And me and...




KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Laine Kaplan-Levenson.

N'JERI EATON, BYLINE: OK, smizing (ph) and somber - N'jeri Eaton.

ABDELFATAH: Will Chase fact-checked this episode.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: And our music was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric.

ARABLOUEI: In this episode, we used archival tape from "PBS NewsHour"...

ABDELFATAH: Recycle Across America...




ABDELFATAH: ...The Ad Council...

ARABLOUEI: ...Huntley Film Archive...

ABDELFATAH: ...ABC Action News...


ABDELFATAH: ...And Keep America Beautiful.

ARABLOUEI: If you like something you heard or you have an idea for an episode, please write us at or hit us up on Twitter @throughlineNPR.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.


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