50 Years After “The Crying Indian” the Plastic Industry Still Prevails
BY CHIARA FIELDS
In 1971, messaging about plastic pollution was turned on its head with the broadcasting of “The Crying Indian” advertisement. It featured an Italian actor, tanned and dressed as an Indigenous person, rowing down a stream while avoiding trash, and passing by industrial factories in his canoe. The camera zooms in on his face as he sheds a single tear and a voice overtop the video declares, “Some people have deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country and some people don’t. People start pollution. People can stop it.” And just like that, the plastic industry could rest easy knowing that they had deflected blame by framing plastic pollution as a consumer-driven problem.
The advertisement itself was produced as part of a larger anti-littering campaign effort by Keep America Beautiful, a nonprofit organization started in the 1950s that claimed to fight plastic pollution. Interestingly, Keep America Beautiful was originally funded by companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. In this way, industry-wide efforts to reduce plastic waste began with companies that are still major contributors to plastic pollution today, with Coca-Cola producing approximately 200,000 plastic bottles per minute each year. Unsurprisingly, these companies knew from the beginning that recycling was not a viable solution because it wasn’t, and still isn’t, economically practical. Larry Thomas, the former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, said in the 80s, “If the public thinks the recycling is working, then they’re not going to be as concerned about the environment.” And he was right. The general public watched an Italian man appropriating Indigenous culture shed a tear, and they swallowed KAB’s claim of consumer-driven plastic pollution. The advertisement even became iconic to the environmental movement of the time and was regarded as one the best advertisements ever made for many years after.
Now, in 2022, we are still being fooled by the plastics industry into thinking that our waste is being reused or recycled. Since the 1950s, when Keep America Beautiful started its initial campaigns, the world has observed a 20,000% increase in the production of plastic. Put simply, recycling is not working, and it's not for our lack of trying as individuals. This October, Greenpeace released a report indicating that recycling was simply economically infeasible. For one, plastic becomes more toxic the more you repurpose it, which means that, realistically, our plastic products are only recyclable one or two times. Also, sorting, washing, and melting plastics is incredibly costly and time intensive. Dumping plastics into a landfill is much easier from an economic perspective, so, even if we are diligently throwing our recyclable goods into the blue bin instead of the black one, only about 5% of it is being recycled. In fact, the U.S. has never reached a recycling rate above 9% and, although we’re producing more plastic than ever, our rates will likely keep dropping below 5% in the coming years. Globally, it is estimated that there will be a 30% increase in the production of single-use plastics by 2026. This means an additional three trillion plastic products will be thrown away in the next three years.
Meanwhile, the plastics industry continues to invest in global plastic production. This year, corporations allocated 208 billion dollars, in addition to what they already invest, into making more plastic goods and perpetuating the myth of recycling. More than 50% of our global plastic waste is produced by just 20 companies, and it’s not Coca-Cola or Nestle, or any of the commercial corporations one might initially expect – it’s major fossil fuel players, like ExxonMobil who produces 5.9 million tons of plastic waste annually.
Fossil fuels themselves are a key component of plastic manufacturing. The most common plastic in the world, polyethylene, is created from ethane, a component of natural gas. The second most common plastic in the world, polypropylene, is created from propane, another component of natural gas. These two types of plastics are seen nearly everywhere, in our food and commercial packaging, our synthetic clothing, our cars, etc. Not only does plastic manufacturing present huge issues in regard to waste management and environmental contamination, but it facilitates climate change and bolsters the companies most responsible for it. As we attempt to reduce our emissions by buying electric cars or installing solar panels on our homes, the fossil fuel industry still prevails as they re-allocate their resources to plastic manufacturing instead of energy production.
Somewhat surprisingly, banks too need to be held accountable. The first investigative report that traced plastic funding back to banks wasn’t published until 2021 and it proved that just twenty global banks were, and still are, responsible for 60% of the financing that goes towards the production of single-use plastics. It’s important that, while we should still hold companies like Coca-Cola accountable for their plastic waste, we don’t ignore the bigger fish. The reality is that, as consumers, we’re fed persuasive, deceptive messages that make us feel like reducing plastic waste is our individual responsibility through our buying decisions and our waste disposal choices, but, in truth, we’re victims of a much larger industry.
So, what do we do with the knowledge that recycling isn’t effective? I think the answer lies in refocusing our efforts. Instead of teaching kids in school “The Three Big R’s” and piquing their interest in the environment through reduce, reuse, recycle slogans, we teach them about effective lobbying and how they can get involved in politics. We educate the public on circular economies and widely communicate data regarding the truth about recycling. We dismantle the belief that plastic pollution is a “people” problem, and we focus on banning plastics altogether.
Luckily, there are politicians and organizations working to ban plastic production and pollution. In San Diego, the Surfrider Foundation has launched its Rise Above Plastics campaign and I Love a Clean San Diego is actively dedicated to helping San Diego reach its zero waste goals. State-wide, Governor Newsom’s SB 54 Bill sets important new recycling standards for single-use plastics and it will cut plastic packaging by 25% in the next 10 years. Lastly, nation-wide, the Break Free from Plastics Act was introduced in the Senate in 2021. If passed, it will gradually eliminate the production of single-use plastics starting January 2023. While both bills are essential steps forward, more stringent efforts should be aimed for. As such, it’s very important that we acknowledge the politics of plastic production. From there, we can lobby and vote for bills that require full bans, and we can support organizations that challenge the plastic industry’s political influence.