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Curious About Littering Statistics Over The Last 40 Years

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Screen shot from Keep America Beautiful commercial featuring Iron Eyes Cody.

Screen shot from Keep America Beautiful commercial featuring Iron Eyes Cody.

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BOSTON (CBS) – Do you remember the anti-litter, Keep America Beautiful “crying Indian” spot that was all over TV in the early 1970′s? It’s iconic to people of a certain age. It aired in the era of the first Earth Day and the beginning of widespread concern about the environment. Scott from Natick remembers, and declared his curiosity on our website asking: “I’d like to know how current statistics on litter compare to those from the days of the crying Indian commercial.”

In that spot the deep-voiced narrator intones with great concern, “Some people have a deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country, and some people don’t. People start pollution, people can stop it.”

WBZ-TV’s Diana Perez reports.

The ad features an actor dressed in stereotypical native American garb, paddling a canoe past trash in the water. When he makes land, he finds more litter. This, apparently, breaks his heart and the camera zooms in as a single tear slowly rolls down his cheek.

Forty years later there’s still plenty of trash lying around. “About 15% of America admits to littering,” says Matt McKenna, the president of Keep America Beautiful. A survey by that group finds that cigarette butts are the most common pieces of litter, and that the amount of plastic litter is growing dramatically.

And guess who litters most. “People under 30 litter at a higher rate than people over 30,” says McKenna. Depressed? Don’t be. There’s good news. Keep America Beautiful compared littering in 1969 to littering now. “The good news is that over that 40 year period, littering has declined more than 60%,” says McKenna. Chalk that up to awareness and recycling.

Another big difference between then and now is people like Shirley and Geanine. They’re part of a “litter buster’ effort in Mansfield where residents adopt a street and keep it clean. And when people see less litter, they’re less apt to litter. The effort is organized by Keep Mansfield Beautiful, a volunteer group that has also painted old trash barrels, purchased new ones for the town, and works to make parks clean and inviting.

“I would estimate that we have picked up probably 8 to 10 tons of trash in 4 years,” says Neil Rhein, the leader of the organization. “We’ve had a huge effect. Our hope is that what we’re doing here in Mansfield will spread across the state,” says Rhein. And that’s the best hope, to set an example and do the work, just like the crying Indian spot says- “People start pollution, people can stop it.”

One footnote. The actor in that spot went by the name Iron Eyes Cody, and passed away in 1999.

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