Keep America Beautiful Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Keep America Beautiful was created and sponsored by more than three hundred private corporations to confront the growing garbage problem in the United States.

Summary of Event

The February, 1981, issue of the magazine Omni listed the 1979 litter inventory for Yosemite National Park as including 16 toupees, 2 statues of Jesus, 487 pairs of glasses, 10,000 combs, 22 cameras, 4,028 lipstick dispensers, 41 discarded sleeping bags, a church pew (complete with cushions), 1 bathtub, and 6 human skeletons. An even more varied collection of materials could apparently be found along the nation’s highways, including bottles, cans, mattresses, rugs, dentures, dinnerware, toolboxes, venetian blinds, cupboard doors, photographs, phonographs, horseshoes, pocketbooks, clothing items, and coat hangers. Keep America Beautiful Environmental organizations;Keep America Beautiful Pollution;United States [kw]Keep America Beautiful Is Founded (1953) [kw]America Beautiful Is Founded, Keep (1953) Keep America Beautiful Environmental organizations;Keep America Beautiful Pollution;United States [g]North America;1953: Keep America Beautiful Is Founded[04000] [g]United States;1953: Keep America Beautiful Is Founded[04000] [c]Organizations and institutions;1953: Keep America Beautiful Is Founded[04000] [c]Environmental issues;1953: Keep America Beautiful Is Founded[04000] [c]Business and labor;1953: Keep America Beautiful Is Founded[04000] Stolk, W. C. Rairdon, Smith Lahey, E. V. Calver, Homer Battley, Joseph Kuni, Henry Walsh, E. K. Cody, Iron Eyes

By the late twentieth century, the United States faced a glut of litter. Trash, the unwanted by-product of a throwaway society, was in evidence everywhere. The accumulation of unwanted material, or garbage, has always been a problem for human societies, but it became a particularly grievous affliction during the industrial age. Trash was pervasive in most U.S. cities of the 1880’s and 1890’s. The streets were strewn with rubbish, and decomposing garbage seeped into the underground water reserves and accumulated in huge, decomposing piles next to hospitals and school yards. In cities like St. Louis, New York, and Chicago, people had to step over horse manure as they made their way along the streets.

Some cities employed contractors to collect the unwanted refuse, but disposal remained a problem. Some cities practiced ocean dumping, while others fed their garbage to swine, which were themselves great waste producers; this practice, which was not totally abandoned until the 1950’s, was also unhealthy, because pigs fed untreated garbage often became infected with trichinella spiralis, a parasite potentially deadly to humans.

These measures and others like them were effective in disposing of trash, but they did not address the root causes of waste production, namely, affluence and consumerism. By the 1950’s, Americans had increased not only in number but also in prosperity. Most had jobs and thus more money to spend on things they would eventually throw away. Mobility was a major theme of life in the United States, and many people who had grown up in filthy, overpopulated cities left with their families for newly built suburban communities where they could purchase relatively inexpensive homes. A complex highway system quickly evolved in part as a response to this migration, and the motorists of the 1950’s began to transfer the urban garbage problem to the countryside.

Keep America Beautiful (KAB) was founded in 1953 to stave off the tide of garbage. Over the next twenty years, the organization grew in size and scope, promoting litter consciousness in the printed media and on national television. KAB also worked effectively at the local level to motivate civic and individual action. Its Clean Community System educated people about the causes of the garbage problem and encouraged them to pressure city governments to enact antilitter legislation.

In the 1960’s, KAB began a “litterbug” campaign on television Television;advertising and radio Radio;advertising . This series of commercial spots drew criticism from the start, even from within the KAB organization. The litterbug slogan and accompanying jingle were considered too juvenile to sway the campaign’s primarily adult target audience effectively. KAB had borrowed the melody from the schoolyard tune “Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be?” and changed the words to “Please, please, don’t be a litterbug,” delivered in a squeaky, childlike falsetto. Despite its denigrators, the program proved quite effective. Litter consciousness became a national obsession and the term “litterbug” a household word.

In the 1970’s, KAB experimented with more sophisticated media material, the most memorable of which was a television Television;public service announcements public service announcement featuring Iron Eyes Cody as a conservation-minded American Indian. Cody was shown paddling his canoe up a polluted river, then standing on the river bank surveying the area around him. Trash lay everywhere; in the distance a factory belched black, toxic smoke. A passing motorist tossed something out of his window that landed at Cody’s feet. Cody stared at the camera as a single tear coursed down his face. The spot closed with the comment “People start pollution, people can stop it.” The Cody series was simple, but its impact was much greater than the earlier litterbug material. Millions saw the weeping Indian, and the case against littering gained many new converts.


Keep America Beautiful was founded by executives of the beverage-container industry. For this reason, its programs were often sharply criticized by conservationists. In fact, dozens and dozens of corporpate sponsors funneled some $2 million into the organization annually. Despite its corporate connections and allegedly tainted motives, KAB had an impressive track record. Its early public service efforts, though purely informational, brought the garbage issue to the forefront of public consciousness.

The organization took a new, proactive approach in the 1970’s. In 1976, KAB employed a team of scientists and researchers to study the litter problem and find a way to end it. After six months, the research team came to the conclusion that the trouble was litter tolerance—in short, a behavioral problem for which the solution was education. The team suggested a program at the local level that stressed measurement, communication, leadership and community pride.

This program, named the Clean Community System Clean Community System , was first tested in Tampa, Florida; Macon, Georgia; and Charlotte, North Carolina. The cities cooperated and managed substantially to reduce the amount of litter on their streets and elsewhere. Macon reduced its measurable litter by an impressive 80 percent. As a result, the city borrowed the concept of the Clean Community System to create an educational antidrug program aimed at teenagers.

KAB was strongly encouraged by the success of the pilot programs and offered the Clean Community System to other cities and towns across the country. Houston and Indianapolis were early converts, and both achieved substantial success. Other large cities, including Chicago, joined the program, and eventually state governments also linked themselves to the KAB network. Moreover, KAB relies on millions of volunteers in hundreds of communities across the country.

KAB prospered because of the organization’s strength and efficiency. A city or town could participate in the program only after having satisfied several rather stringent requirements. These included the official endorsement of community leaders such as aldermen, business entities, school board and sanitation officials, and media executives; and local funding to help create a volunteer organization and provide it with the materials needed to be effective. KAB provided seminars and workshops to the cities that met these requirements.

The organization also worked with local government officials to create prevention-based antilitter legislation. Ordinances were tailored to the specific needs of each community to maximize their effectiveness. Later, KAB expanded its programs to address the issues of recycling and existing waste management.

Inspired by KAB’s success, other national agencies created antilitter programs of their own. To encourage them, KAB offered loans, direct grants, and sometimes outright funding. Under one such grant, a litter-measuring technique was developed. This index, a kind of garbage barometer, allowed researchers to identify the litter hot spots in their respective communities. Researchers took photographic samplings of target sites, from which the litter was counted. Target sites were sampled biannually, allowing researchers to evaluate the progress of litter collection efforts in a given area.

The success of Keep America Beautiful eventually inspired other nations to address their litter problems. Organizations such as The Tidy Britain Group, Clean Japan, Keep Australia Tidy, and Clean World International, all took their initial concept from KAB. Keep America Beautiful Environmental organizations;Keep America Beautiful Pollution;United States

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alexander, Judd H. In Defense of Garbage. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1993. Describes recycling methods that affect the economy in positive ways and presents persuasive arguments in favor of waste as a resource.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blumberg, Louis, and Robert Gottlieb. War on Waste: Can America Win Its Battle with Garbage? Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1989. Describes how politics and bureaucracy effectively strangle waste-management efforts in U.S. cities. Also describes in depressing detail the war between antiwaste activists and the trash-disposal establishment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ledoux, Denis. “A Boost for Bottle Laws.” The Progressive, February, 1980, 10-11. Discusses the effectiveness of “bottle laws,” legislation aimed at packaging soft drinks and beer in returnable containers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lee, Sally. The Throwaway Society. New York: Franklin Watts, 1990. Discusses the litter problem from two perspectives, population and affluence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Melosi, Martin V. Garbage in the Cities: Refuse, Reform, and the Environment. Rev. ed. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005. Outlines the evolution of the litter crisis in the United States and the efforts made to solve it. The descriptions of the trash-infested cities of the nineteenth century are particularly interesting.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rathje, William, and Cullen Murphy. Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001. A study of what is thrown away. Written by a self-proclaimed “garbologist.” Combines a survey of the history of garbage with archaeological results of the author’s long-term garbage project. Readable and essential. Includes an updated preface.

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Categories: History