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.

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.

Getting children involved

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.

Sharla Hotchkiss would certainly agree with that statement. Ms. Hotchkiss has been an antilitter activist for 17 years, but the "keep it clean" ethic has been with her for much longer.

In fact, her "green" journey began during a family trip when she was 8 years old, on the road between El Campo and Wharton, Texas.

Her grandmother, an avid gardener and nature lover, must have seen someone littering, because she suddenly and firmly decreed: "Never throw anything out the car window unless it's a wildflower seed."

Ms. Hotchkiss, remembering this edict, went on to become an activist extraordinaire. Two years ago she received the Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson Award, which honors women dedicated to making America more beautiful.

One of her most notable achievements is maintaining a 95 percent reduction in litter in Midland, Texas (hometown of George W. and Laura Bush), where she is the former executive director of Keep Midland Beautiful, the local KAB affiliate (there are 535 affiliates nationwide). She has also been president of Keep Texas Beautiful.

Today, she trains teachers, civic leaders, and those who run the network of more than 62 certified KAB local organizations in the state.

"If you were to come to one of our projects - tree planting, litter pickup, recycling, or whatever it might be - you'd like the people, because they're real positive," Hotchkiss says. "They believe in what they're doing, and they're so happy to find something that they can do that they know makes a difference."

Hotchkiss, like Empson, believes recruiting is crucial, but she focuses on a more local level.

Making litter their business, too

In Midland, stores are encouraged to accept recycled bags and cashiers are asked not to bag items unnecessarily. Fewer bags means fewer plastic eyesores blowing around and snagging on the mesquite that is so prevalent in this part of wind-swept west-central Texas.

Trouble spots, Hotchkiss says, are often near grocery, discount, and convenience stores, as well as fast-food restaurants. (Drive-through customers are noticeably more careless with their trash than those who get out of their cars.)

These businesses, however, are actually among the best supporters of Keep Midland Beautiful, and frequently underwrite cleanup efforts by supplying money plus goodies - food and T-shirts - to the volunteers.

"The last thing these stores want to see is litter with their name on it by the side of the road," Hotchkiss explains. "They don't want their brand associated with negative behavior."

Part of what makes Keep America Beautiful successful, she believes, is its ability to deliver both instant and long-term gratification. Cleanup projects offer the former, tree-planting the latter.

The group also places great value on being nonconfrontational. "We don't point fingers, we network," Hotchkiss says. "It's really hard to get angry with people in your community who are planting trees and picking up litter, and that's why political folks will get involved with us. We don't embarrass them."

Hotchkiss seldom confronts litterers, preferring to lead by example and encouraging others to follow her lead.

"Go pick up some trash," she suggests to this reporter. "You'll be amazed at how good it makes you feel."

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