By Karl Kamena
In 1985, I became Director of Government Affairs and Public Issues for Dow Plastics. I was totally unprepared for the political and public issues environment I was about to experience.
In 1986 the "homeless" barge from Long Island captured the nation’s attention, and for the next several years garbage became a battleground across America. Battles took place in school classrooms, too. Students were encouraged to "save" the environment by becoming advocates for causes such as banning Styrofoam clamshells and nondegradable plastic packages.
What do you do when school children are demanding the removal of your products, and your customers’ products, from restaurant counters and grocery shelves? You do just about anything. Dow launched a variety of initiatives, from preparing instructional materials to creating recycling demonstration projects.
Looking back at these efforts, I see even more clearly than I did then that some were legitimate education but others were propaganda–which became known as "greenwash." I would like to share with you my thoughts about two programs.
"Recycle This!" was specifically targeted to schools. Those who created the program feared that Dow would lose business because people just didn’t like plastic. To counter this, Dow made a positive and upbeat attempt to reach school children in language they would understand. In this respect "Recycle This!" was a success. It was a cross between a Broadway musical and a rap concert. Strobe lights flashed, trendy music blared, snazzy props decorated the stage, actors and actresses talked jive, and kids in the aisle rocked to the sounds.
We’re talking way cool, dude! Let’s listen in:
"All right, I get-cha, I think I understand;
This land-fill business is completely out of hand.
The pile’s getting bigger and the air is really stinkin’,
We gotta make a major change in our collective thinkin’.
Recycling papers, cans, and glass can’t miss,
But when it comes to plastics,
Baby, RECYCLE THIS!
Hey, no problem…! "
"Recycle This!" told kids that society is generating a lot of garbage, and the nation is running out of landfill space, but the best way to stop filling landfills is to recycle, and plastics are very recyclable (or so we said). Other ways to manage garbage, such as waste-to-energy incineration, were ignored.
In my opinion, both now and then, "Recycle This!" was a mistake. To understand why, let me point out the strengths of the program, as they were described to me, and my response.
First, the program was issue-oriented: Plastics were under attack because of a public perception that plastics were filling up landfills. Dow (and other industry colleagues) took on the job of correcting this misconception.
My response: Environmental education in K-12 schools should not be driven by issues management, whatever the position. Education is not advocacy. (Of course, when the alligators are snapping at your keister, you do everything you can to drain the swamp, and worry later about whether what you did was right.)
Second, the program went directly to the student with no teacher input or qualification.
My response: I believe that within the school classroom, all educational resources and curricula should go through the teacher.
Third, the message was extremely limited: It was to put plastics in perspective, from a company’s point of view.
My response: The message was simplistic and incomplete. It unconditionally promoted recycling, reinforced misconceptions about landfills, and ignored incineration and composting.
Fourth, the program was an expensive and well-run production, demonstrating Dow’s interest in and commitment to environmental education.
My response: It was marvelous entertainment, advertising and propaganda.
That was one program. Here is another. For some years, Dow has supported the NEED (National Energy Education Development) Project. NEED is a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to promote an "energy-conscious and educated society." Since there is a close connection between solid waste management and energy, NEED and Dow and other companies developed an education unit, called the Museum of Solid Waste and Energy.
The Museum is essentially a series of exhibits designed by students for their own school. It can be used in grade schools, middle schools, and high schools. Based on my experience, student reception has been universally enthusiastic.
The curriculum starts with a questionnaire polling each student on knowledge of solid waste, and ends with the same poll (then called a "report card") evaluating what was learned. Students working in groups develop exhibits in their "Museum" that explain each element of solid waste management (landfill, recycling, waste-to-energy incineration, composting, reduction). Pros and cons of each waste management option are covered, especially in the light of the impact on energy. For example, students found that recycling aluminum cans saves energy, but plastic production is already highly energy-efficient. The result is an educated student who appreciates that garbage management is a complex subject involving "shades of gray" choices.
The NEED Project is currently active in 35 states with some 5000 teachers reaching over 150,000 students. If there is one thing NEED lacks, it’s money to expand its network. Unfortunately, businesses are generally not large contributors to "soft" educational causes in which they don’t have a large measure of control over the message (as they do in advertising or "Recycle This!"). I’d like to see businesses rally around such an approach. The case has to be made over and over again as to why it makes sense–and in the long run "cents"–for businesses to support such a program.
Karl Kamena is a Principal of KWK Resources, an environmental consulting firm located in Midland, Michigan.