The following is a conversation between Helen Lowman, President and CEO of Keep America Beautiful, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.


Helen Lowman

Denver: Well before the Environmental Protection Agency ever existed there was Keep America Beautiful, founded in 1953. And it may be hard to imagine today but there was a time when drivers would throw trash out their car window without thinking about it twice, but it was Keep America Beautiful that did get us to think about it and changed the behavior of an entire nation, and they continue to do that to this very day. And here to discuss it all with us is Helen Lowman, the President and CEO of Keep America Beautiful. 

Good evening, Helen, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Helen: Hi Denver! Thanks for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.

Denver: The history of your organization is so rich, and there are two pieces of it that I wanted to share for our younger listeners. The first would be the iconic Ad Council spot that first ran on Earth Day in 1971. Describe that spot and the impact that it had on American society.

 Helen: We had a partnership with Ad Council for years and that spot is well known as the “Crying Indian.” That’s the name of the PSA. It shows a Native American who’s witnessing litter essentially all over the country. At the very end of the spot, it shows him standing on a hill, and somebody in a car throws a bag of litter or trash out the window and it lands at his feet, and a single tear rolls down his face. 

Today, that ad is one of the most famous public service advertisements ever in the United States. At universities, students study it in marketing departments. But it really changed the course of people in the United States to understand that litter was wrong and that there was a proper place for trash to go. So when you talk to people about it, if they were kids during that time, it really had an enormous impact on them and how they how they behaved.

Denver: It did on me. I think part of it, probably back at that time, was that the interstate highway system had been built, and there was this time when you were just driving in your car with the windows open and you finish your McDonald’s or whatever, and you would just take it and chuck it out the window. It was incredible, wasn’t it?

Helen: It was incredible. We hope that that people continue to understand that lesson but, unfortunately, litter is still a problem today and we still work really hard to fight it. But, yes, at that time consumerism had really hit America. There weren’t trash cans around, just this consumerism. There wasn’t an infrastructure to handle it.

Denver: Another thing from your history would be the relationship that Keep America Beautiful had with former First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson. What was her area of focus?

Helen: Well, it was really about beautification. She worked with us to beautify highways, primarily highways. She worked on a billboard bill; she was very anti-billboards, especially on high ways. She believed that –

Denver: [That] turned out to be some kind of a compromise, I [would] think at the day, if I recall.

Helen: That’s exactly right. And so, yes, we were her kind of chosen charity. We worked with her on wildflowers and on highway beautification. 

The mission is really to empower individuals to beautify, clean, and sustain their communities. So, it’s really a very grassroots mission. It’s about education around three specific goals: One is to end littering; the second is to improve recycling; and the third is to beautify communities.

Denver: Those two things are still very much to the core of what you do. So, Helen, share with us the mission and the goals of the organization as they currently stand. 

Helen: The mission is really to empower individuals to beautify, clean, and sustain their communities. So, it’s really a very grassroots mission. It’s about education around three specific goals: One is to end littering; the second is to improve recycling; and the third is to beautify communities. 

We do that with about more than 600 affiliate organizations across the country. At the headquarters level, at our level, we really try to provide resources, tools, anything the affiliates need in order to implement the programming at the grassroots level. 

Denver: Well, let’s take the first of those and that is littering. One of your big programs there would be the Great American Cleanup. Speak to that.

 Helen:  Yes, that’s right. The Great American Cleanup is amazing. There are about 20,000 events across the United States that involve anything from cleaning illegal graffiti to planting flowers to picking up litter – anything that involves improving the local community – and through that, changing the behavior around litter and helping individuals understand how they can maintain a beautiful community. 

Cigarette butts are the number one type of litter.

Denver: And even though there’s been a significant reduction in smoking, you still see those cigarette butts out on the street. What are you doing about that? Are you partnering with anybody to try to clean that element up? 

Helen: Unfortunately, cigarette butts are the number one type of litter. They make up about 34% of litter—

Denver: Much more than I would have thought.

 Helen: It’s a lot, unfortunately. And so, we partner with Altria, who is a cigarette manufacturer, to run a program called the Cigarette Litter Prevention Program. It’s a massive initiative across the United States to put the little cigarette butt containers across the United States. Those are then collected, sent to a company called TerraCycle, and they’re actually recycled and made into other products.

The thing about cigarette butts that most people don’t actually realize is that the filter is plastic and so it doesn’t degrade. Most people don’t realize that. They think that, “Oh, it’s a natural… it’s paper. It’s tobacco. It’ll degrade.” But that that little filter is plastic and that’s the real damage.

Denver: Keep America Beautiful is always looking for practical solutions to solve problems. But with that being said, do you ever get any pushback in partnering with a cigarette company?

Helen: I would say there probably are people who don’t think it’s a good idea, but it’s a very, very beneficial project for us and there is a need across this country. I would say the manufacturer realizes and is taking responsibility for their part.

Denver: Let’s pick up on Lady Bird again and that has to do with your public beautification program. What are some of your initiatives in that arena?

Helen: Lots of initiatives around public spaces, the greening of public spaces, parks. We have affiliates across the country who take care of parks, plant gardens, plant trees. We have affiliates that plant thousands of trees across the country. 

Also, wildflowers on the highways. Mississippi just comes to mind. They have an incredible program that provides wildflowers across on the highways. Texas, of course, because of Lady Bird Johnson; their wildflower program is amazing. And all sorts of parks and trees planted at schools and that kind of thing. It’s a big part of what we do still. 

One of the most amazing things we see in places like that is where communities and neighborhoods where the litter is picked up and where there’s trees and flowers and gardens, you can see the property values go up. So, there’s a kind of a subsequent improvement that happens: the crime is reduced; property values go up; because people are out walking, health goes up. 

Denver: One of the focuses of that would be National Planting Day. Tell us about that. When is that usually held?

Helen: National Planting Day is in the fall. It’s just a day to recognize that that we should all plant something, to get out plant your flowers, plant your fall garden. We also have a lot of affiliates that work in community gardens. For example, in Phoenix, our affiliate has a community garden that they’ve developed in a vacant lot. 

One of the most amazing things we see in places like that is where communities and neighborhoods where the litter is picked up and where there’s trees and flowers and gardens, you can see the property values go up. So, there’s a kind of a subsequent improvement that happens: the crime is reduced; property values go up; because people are out walking, health goes up. So, there’s a lot of other improvements that are seen as well.

Recycling is a really important part of the circular economy. It’s something that we need people to participate in.

Denver: Very cool. And then there is recycling, which Keep America Beautiful was one of the pioneers in. Now, I’m glad you’re here because I hear so many conflicting messages about recycling – whether it’s good, whether it’s a waste of time, what you should be done. Why don’t you set us straight about recycling? What should consumers know?

Helen: Well, I’m not sure I’m going to set you straight, but everyone should keep recycling. Recycling is a really important part of the circular economy. It’s something that we need people to participate in. 

The real challenge right now in recycling is the issue of contamination. So, many people want to recycle. A lot of times, we refer to it as aspirational recycling or wish cycling where folks go to their recycling bin and, for example, they think, “Oh, well, maybe possibly, these dirty diapers could be recycled so I’m going to put them in my recycling bin.” And unfortunately, what happens is that then contaminates the entire bin of recycling.

So, what’s really important is that you know for your community what can go in the recycling bin because it is different community to community, and that that’s the only thing that goes in that recycling bin. So, there’s a saying in in the recycling world that is “When in doubt, throw it out.” So, put it in the garbage if you have any question about it, but definitely keep recycling. The markets are good. We just need to do our part. 

Helen Lowman and Denver Frederick inside the studio

Denver: One of the challenges the markets have at the moment though is that China is no longer taking our recycled waste, and that’s cause some backup and some headaches for people who’ve been in that business.

Helen: It has, definitely. The challenge is with China no longer taking, buying our recycled goods has been a challenge. But there are definitely industries here who want clean, good, recycled items to put back in their own. Almost all the beverage companies have goals to make sure that their beverages in the future are actually in recycled content bottles. So, they need those to close the circular loop. 

Denver: I read the other day that when you get or buy a can of soda at the store and recycle it, it can actually be back on the store shelves within 60 days. I was blown away by that.

Helen: That’s exactly right. Honestly, we hear often from many companies – Pepsi, Coke, Nestle Waters – we need more bottles and cans back. We need them back. We need them back. So, keep recycling them. 

We found that people were more likely to recycle if they knew that what they were recycling was going to become something else.

Denver: And one of your programs there is I Want to Be Recycled.

Helen: In our research, we found that people were more likely to recycle if they knew that what they were recycling was going to become something else. And so, we have a campaign called I Want to Be Recycled. There are several ads, but it shows items that have been recycled becoming something else. 

There’s one that shows a bottle a plastic bottle that goes on this journey. It’s called the Journey. At the end of the journey of the bottle, it becomes a bench that overlooks the ocean, so it’s quite cute.

Denver: We mentioned one of your partnerships you have around cigarette butts, but you have a number of other corporate partners. Let’s talk about a couple of them starting with Pernod Ricard.

Helen: Pernod Ricard is a new and fantastic partner of ours. They are doing some really incredible things. I want to just mention one since we’re sitting in New York City. They have a day when they actually close all their operations, and on that day, every single one of their employees gives back to the community. It’s called Responsib’ALL Day. We partner with them to have their employees here in New York City to give back. 

We’ve done partnerships with them mostly through community gardens. So GrowNYC and other local nonprofits here in New York that have community gardens, we help them by bringing in Pernod Ricard employees. They paint, they do all sorts of things. They build benches. They   clean up. It’s really, really impressive, and we have a lot of fun with it.

Denver: There’s also the Hefty EnergyBag Program. What’s that about?

Helen: The Hefty EnergyBag is a program that is in a few cities. Basically, it’s a way of recycling very-hard-to-recycle items. So, there’s a special bag and if the community has a way to process this particular method of recycling things like potato chip bags and that type of packaging that are normally absolutely unable to be recycled, can be recycled through the Hefty EnergyBag Program

Denver: Helen, have you ever been able to measure the impact of your work on these 600-plus communities and in terms of the economic payback of it all?

Helen: We do actually measure it every single year, the return to the communities where we work. Last year, if I remember correctly, it was about $350 million that our affiliate network gave back to their communities.

Denver: So, what are you doing in schools? Tell me about your educational program.

Helen: We have great, great success in schools. We have two main programs. One is called Waste in Place. It is a curriculum that we train teachers on, and then they use it in their schools. Also, it’s really good for girls’ and boy scouts, for boys’ and girls’ clubs. It could be used in many different ways. There’s a lot of really fun activities for kids to do.

And then we also have a Youth Advisory Council, and that’s 11th and 12th graders. We work with those students to actually do environmental projects on their school campuses. So, they can do a recycling program, they could have some sort of litter education, and we work with those 11th and 12th graders to implement those projects at their on their school campuses.

Denver: Fantastic. I try to learn a new word every week and this week that word would be “plogging.” What is plogging?

Helen: So Plogging is really new for us, but it’s very exciting. It actually comes originally from Sweden. The word in Swedish is “plocka upp”. We’ve sort of transliterated it here in the United States to plogging, which means “picking up litter while jogging.” So, it’s an incredible movement actually for runners to take a bag with them when they go running and then they pick up litter while they’re running. 

We’re actually holding several events. We do events in communities around plogging where we give out prizes and have contests and that kind of thing. We have one coming up that’s in Norwalk, Connecticut. We’re partnering with the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk. We have another one coming up in Houston. We’re also doing one in Essex County. So, lots of fun stuff there. We were really fortunate that Oprah Magazine actually covered us a few months ago in their April edition on doing plogging with Keep America Beautiful. 

Denver: Very neat. Well, I know that runners are a very responsible group of people and as long as they’re not timing themselves on these runs, they’ll do a lot of good.

Helen: Yes, well, there’s a lot of different kind of things we’re giving prizes about like who gathers the most litter. It’s not about crossing the finish line, the first person.

Denver: Give us a little bit about your business model and how you’re funded and how you make all of this go? 

Helen:  We’re mostly funded through corporate partners, our partnerships with all different types of corporations. We have a few grants, a few individual donors. We have our organization Keep America Beautiful that’s located just outside of New York City in Stamford, Connecticut and then the 600-plus, let’s say, affiliates that are across the United States, and each of those affiliates has a huge volunteer network that does their work for them. So, we have probably about three million volunteers across the country and then, in addition to that, about another two million or so people who just participate in things that we do. 

I think we operate with a tri-sector partnership – with communities, government, and industry. We believe that working together, all those sectors together, is the way that that we can create change. But at the end of the day, if somebody has something in their hand and they don’t dispose of it in the right place, we’re never going to win this fight. 

Denver: Let me close with this, Helen. Keep America Beautiful was probably the first organization that emphasize a clean environment was just not the responsibility of government and industry but of each individual citizen. If there is a place that you think we are collectively falling short, what would that be? What would you ask that each of us do starting tomorrow?

Helen: That’s a great question. I think I would ask at this point in time for people to really think about not littering. Littering is still an enormous problem in our country. It’s unbelievable to me actually that someone would think about intentionally throwing something on the ground. I would just really beg people to just wait, find a trash can, put it in the right place or take the next step and put it in a recycling bin if it’s recyclable. That is really my ask. 

I think we operate with a tri-sector partnership – with communities, government, and industry. We believe that working together, all those sectors together, is the way that that we can create change. But at the end of the day, if somebody has something in their hand and they don’t dispose of it in the right place, we’re never going to win this fight. 

Denver: Right. It comes down to each and every one of us. Well, Helen Lowman, the President CEO of Keep America Beautiful, I want to thank you for being here this evening. For people who want to learn more about the organization or perhaps financially support your work, tell us about your website and the kind of information they can expect to find there.

Helen: It’s very easy. It’s kab.org, and they can find all sorts of information, research, tools… everything’s on our website and I would encourage everyone to go there to learn more. 

Denver: Well, thanks, Helen. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show. 

 Helen: Thank You, Denver. Hope to see you again soon. 

Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.

Helen Lowman and Denver Frederick


The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.

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