Solid Waste & Recycling


Cover Story: Litter Bugs

Prompted primarily by concern about soft-drink container litter, British Columbia enacted the first deposit-refund system in North America in 1970. The next year Oregon followed with the first U.S. de...

Prompted primarily by concern about soft-drink container litter, British Columbia enacted the first deposit-refund system in North America in 1970. The next year Oregon followed with the first U.S. deposit-refund system for beer and soft drink containers.

Concurrent with the 1971 announcement of the Oregon “bottle bill” Keep America Beautiful (KAB) launched its “People Start Pollution, People Can Stop It” campaign. The launch of these seemingly complementary initiatives was no coincidence and anything but mutually supportive. As a group dedicated to “empowering individuals to take greater responsibility for enhancing their local community environment” KAB’s intention was not to support the Oregon “bottle bill” and other such potential initiatives but instead to undermine them.

Currently one of the best-funded “environmental” advocacy groups in North America, KAB is what some environmentalists call “Astroturf” — a seeming “grassroots” environmental organization that was in fact conjured up by commercial interests. KAB’s founders and directors include representatives of Coca-Cola, Philip Morris (former parent company to U.S. brewing giant Anheuser Busch), Mobil Chemical, Procter and Gamble and public relations giant Burson-Marsteller.

Often staffed and assisted by well-intentioned and unwitting individuals (e.g., municipalities, small community-based environmental groups, children’s organizations, etc.) organizations such as KAB help their commercial benefactors put a third party “spin” on a given environmental issue. KAB’s objective was to get the public to understand that litter was not the responsibility of manufacturers but of citizens at large.

Commercial interests can pay for good public relations campaigns. KAB’s was magnificent in its execution and was centered around a famous TV commercial that featured an ersatz Native American paddling down an oil slick and garbage-covered river whereby he passes a smoke belching industrial complex. He finally arrives on the shoulder of a highway where he sheds a tear as a bag of refuse is discharged from a passing car that breaks at his feet. The commercial closes with the “People Start Pollution, People Can Stop It” tagline. (The Indian was in fact “Iron Eyes Cody,” an Italian immigrant who made a living portraying “Indians” in Hollywood westerns.)

Of course the ad makes no allusion to the fact that in the U.S. it is private companies and not “the people” that own and operate polluting factories and produce polluting products.

Over time PR efforts such as the “Crying Indian” commercial slowly repositioned litter as a public issue and bolstered industry arguments for publicly operated recycling programs that would allegedly better address the overall “waste problem.” Soon the deposit-return “quick fix” was mired in debates over the relative merits of publicly funded curbside collection for recycling versus those of industry operated deposit-refund systems.

The “new math” of litter

Thirty-two years later publicly-funded curbside recycling programs are well entrenched in virtually every significant North American jurisdiction. Even in the nine Canadian provinces and 12 U.S. states (most recently Hawaii) in which broad-based deposit-refund systems operate they almost always do so in concert with curbside recycling programs.

While litter remains a big issue in general, it seems to be much less so in deposit jurisdictions or so contends the Richmond, Virginia-based Container Recycling Institute (CRI). CRI claims that there is a strong correlation between container deposits, reduced beverage container litter, and reduced total litter. CRI attributes the reduction in total litter to behavioral changes in consumers that result from their participation in deposit-refund systems. Of course, industry argues otherwise as this excerpt from the U.S.-based National Soft Drink Association web site suggests, “…deposit laws have had little or no success at litter reduction because beverage containers account for about 8 percent of roadside litter and an even smaller fraction of the total litter problem.”

So where did the 8 per cent number come from? Much as it is argued that beverage containers comprise a small portion of the weight of the solid waste stream and therefore do not warrant special recovery measures such as deposit-refund systems, a novel approach to litter accounting has simply made beverage containers “disappear” in the context of the “total litter problem.”

Consider recent events at the City of Toronto. In 2001 and 2002 litter came to the forefront of environmental issues as city staff undertook a litter audit in May 2002. This followed staff reports that estimated the city’s 2001 total litter collection cost at a staggering $13.22-million (which is more than a quarter the cost of the province of Ontario’s entire curb-side recycling program).

In order to quantify the litter problem and to identify industries whose products end up as litter, city staff audited bags of litter collected by street sweepers and tabulated the contents by type and weight. The city found that within the 125kg sample it collected the four top litter categories were: newspapers, beverage containers (see table), quick service packaging items (e.g. coffee cups and fast food packaging) and confectionary packaging.

In the face of a strong lobby by Refreshments Canada (formerly the Canadian Soft Drink Association) the raw data underlying the city’s litter audit remain unpublished. Instead, the audit was used as a stick to encourage industry to participate in the Clean Streets Working Group. Proposed in November 2001 the Group was to include city and private sector representation and was to have a mandate to, “…identify solutions to address litter in the City.” Since the original litter audit’s results were unpalatable to some of the commercial representatives, the Group was also tasked to develop a more “scientific” study.

Shortly thereafter the City of Toronto’s Geoff Rathbone, director of policy and planning, works and emergency services (and former vice president of technical and market development of industry lobby group Corporations Supporting Recycling: CSR) awarded MGM Management (MGM) a $25,000 sole source contract to bring a truly “scientific” approach to the city’s follow-up litter audit. Mark McKenny, former president of Beverage Recovery in Canada (another soft drink lobby group), led the MGM consulting team.

In the introduction to its June 2002 Draft Litter Survey MGM states that it adopted the Florida Centre for Solid and Hazardous Waste Management’s approach to litter counting. First used in Florida in 1993 the methodology was developed under the oversight of a steering committee that included representatives from the soft drink and fast food industries. The stated purpose of Florida’s annual litter surveys is to measure the performance of Keep Florida Beautiful (the state affiliate of KAB) which the Florida Legislature has established, “…as a working public/private partnership … to coordinate Florida’s efforts to reduce litter and marine debris by 50%.”

MGM prefaces its June 2002 draft of its Litter Survey by quickly dispatching the litter counting efforts of local environmental groups as “not scientific.” While MGM makes considerable efforts to convince the reader that the methods it has adopted for its litter survey are “…unbiased, scientifically rigorous and reproducible to be defensible” it curiously makes no warranty as to whether the methodology it has chosen is at all “sensible.” That is, amongst the pedantic methodological details (which are sure to impress even the most recalcitrant policy analyst) nowhere are there any answers to simple yet important questions. For example, why are there tabulation counts of various pieces of litter rather than their weight or volume? and what does the litter count data really mean?

The reason these questions are not asked (let alone answered) is because the study has a specific agenda. The original litter study made it quite clear that newspapers comprise 60 p

er cent of litter by weight, non-deposit beverage containers 10 per cent by weight and coffee cups seven per cent of litter by weight. But the MGM study allows beverage containers to hide further down the list masked by much higher counts of individual pieces of paper and obscure litter classes such as “other plastic packaging.”

The purpose of quantifying the amount of litter is to identify the major components and then do something about it. In contrast, the “new math” of litter accounting involves cleverly defining “the total litter problem” in terms of individual pieces of litter and never converting it to more useful metrics for decision-making (e.g. weight, volume, energy content and financial cost). In this manner every piece of litter four inches square or larger is equivalently a “large piece” of litter and anything less is a “small piece” of litter. Accordingly, a sheet of newsprint, an aluminum can and a 600ml PET bottle all have the same “weighting” despite the fact that producing a tonne of aluminum generates 12 times the CO2 equivalents than producing a tonne of newsprint, and the PET bottle incurs about $1,800/tonne to collect as litter.

Yet the PR benefits of this piece-count methodology to any one individual source of litter are quite significant. For example, with over the 6,000 pieces of litter collected for the MGM litter survey, a doubling of the number of littered soft drink containers would mean only a three per cent increase in the soft drink share of the total litter count. Expand the survey to include hundreds of bits of paper and cigarette butts (collectively, 56.4 per cent of “small litter”), and beverage containers virtually disappear in the ballooning litter count numbers. Beverage container deposits? Forget it! Too small a portion of the littler stream to worry about, you see?

Recently, CSR reported that single-serve beverage containers are “getting lost in the system” due to their consumption in convenience stores, gas stations and other locations far from recycling blue boxes. While this could result in increased litter we may never find out, thanks to the new litter measurement technique.

The manipulation of data and pseudo-science have replaced the commercials of yesteryear starring Iron Eyes Cody, but now it’s the municipal taxpayer who should be crying by the side of the road.

Category Kilograms % Of total

Newspapers 75 60.0%

Non-deposit beverage containers and associated packaging12.129.7%

Deposit beverage (beer) containers and associated packaging2.351.9%

Coffee Cups and other coffee shop packaging8.536.8%

Residual packaging not listed, tissue and other2721.6%

Total 125 100.0%

Results of the City of Toronto’s of May 2001 litter audit.

Usman Valiante is principal of Gener- al Science Works, based in To- ronto, Ontario. E-mail Usman at

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