City improvement: Banishing litter
The job of keeping a nation clean is never really done. But after 50 years of trying, Keep America Beautiful Inc. has learned a lot about how to encourage new antilitter crusaders.Skip to next paragraph
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The key, at both the national and local levels, is to help people see what's in their own backyards and persuade them to do something about it.
When the organization began, that meant prompting a national cleanliness ethic. The idea grew out of concerns about a mounting litter problem, which had been brought on by a growing population and economy, and by increased demand for consumer goods after World War II.
Keep America Beautiful blossomed in the 1960s with public-service advertising campaigns such as the one in which Susan Spotless scolds her dad for littering. Lady Bird Johnson, the first lady, also brought attention to the cause by championing highway beautification.
In the '70s, the famous crying Indian campaign, showing a native American's sadness at the sight of litter, was introduced. That campaign was considered a landmark in raising America's environmental awareness, says Ray Empson, president of Keep America Beautiful (KAB). But awareness was not enough. Action was needed.
And action has paid off. "Our roadways are undeniably cleaner than they were 25 years ago," says Mr. Empson. "And some states have done a spectacular job of cleaning their most highly traveled arteries."
But the antilitter army still has much work to do, especially now, with an estimated 2.3 million volunteers participating in the annual Great American Cleanup, a three-month campaign that ends in May.
Last year, the event posted its usual impressive numbers. Among them: 7,600 miles of shoreline cleaned, 10,000 junk cars removed, 5,100 houses painted, nearly 2 million flowers and bulbs planted, and 110 million pounds of litter and debris collected.
But once this year's event is over, Empson must focus on KAB's other pressing mission: recruiting a new generation to help with their cause.
Empson says it's more difficult to reach young people today, because the TV landscape is more fragmented and there are more not-for-profit groups vying for public-service airtime.
"The hardest thing is to capture attention and to have our issue surface as important in comparison with other ones that children are being asked to pay attention to," he says.
That's why KAB has developed a curriculum to be used in the primary grades. Waste in Place, the elementary school curriculum, focuses on litter prevention and responsible solid-waste practices. Last year, KAB volunteers and staff reached about 940,000 young people in their classrooms.
Beyond that, it's important to engage teenagers with challenging neighborhood projects. One strategy that appeals to them is competition. It also helps to make cleanup events more dramatic and more physically challenging. In Washington, D.C., for example, teens got on bikes and inline skates and descended on areas throughout the city that needed cleaning up.
But the best way to drive home the antilittering ethic has always been to have people roll up their sleeves and dig in. "We think there's extraordinary value in experiential education, seeing and picking up the litter along the roadway, and being unhappy about how it's gotten there," Empson says.