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Environmentalists trash-talk Keep America Beautiful.

It’s hard to scoff at Iron Eyes Cody. Even if the sad Native American icon was the creation of a Hollywood actor and a do-gooder environmental group, that single teardrop on the aged Indian’s cheek has always been hard to resist. A public service announcement launched on Earth Day 1971, the ad was relaunched in 1998: a moist exclamation mark on a sage face, a tear for littered American roadsides everywhere.

Iron Eyes—the man—is gone now, but his image lives on. So does the organization, Keep America Beautiful (KAB), which—after nearly a half-century in existence—has decided that the ascendency of an environmentalist Washington mayor makes this the perfect time to make inroads in the District of Columbia. KAB, a national nonprofit based in Stamford, Conn., with 500 local affiliates, was founded in 1953 by a consortium of beverage and packaging companies. Still largely industry-funded, it draws a portion of its operating costs from municipalities in which it is based.

Keep Washington, D.C. Beautiful, a new local affiliate, wants to sponsor volunteer cleanups and do anti-littering education. It also hopes to lend bulk to a fairly thin book of District programs, such as Graffiti Blasters, Adopt-A-Block, Gateway Beautification, and the ever-popular city rat abatement initiatives. As pitched by Mayor Anthony A. Williams in a letter to the D.C. Council last November, the KAB affiliate would mobilize neighborhood residents to clean up their parks and sidewalks and turn the nation’s capital into the “crown jewel” envisioned by Lady Bird Johnson.

Williams declared the city a certified member of KAB in March, formalizing the partnership, and put aside $200,000 for the group as a line item in the city’s 2001 budget. He then asked the D.C. Council to sign off in the form of a bill authorizing the local KAB affiliate’s cleanup and educational activities. It was supposed to be the pet environmental project of a mayoralty launched, in 1998, on a highly publicized canoe ride on the Anacostia River.

The funding request, however, died last April in the council’s Committee on Public Works and the Environment. Committee Chair Carol Schwartz said that it was “nothing personal” against KAB. Rather, she complained that the mayor’s allocation involved no competitive bidding process and contained no “performance standards” for evaluating the group’s efforts.

Those sound like dry, procedural objections. But they mask a deeper debate over the industry’s real agenda in D.C. Critics have been questioning KAB’s emphasis on litter and trash cans, rather than on preventative strategies such as recycling, bottle deposits, and reducing packaging material. It’s a debate that’s likely to be played out again next year, as the KAB affiliate and administration officials come back for a city contribution. Says Vincent Spaulding, Williams’ appointee for coordinator of the mayor’s Clean City Initiative: “Hopefully, at some point the city will contribute money to the organization.”

Where Williams sees good works, some D.C. environmentalists see bad motives and a hidden agenda. A check of the organization’s Web site shows that KAB has deep—and deep-pocketed—industry roots: The Pepsi-Cola Co., McDonald’s Corp., and Glad Products Co. are all significant funders. Local Keep Washington, D.C. Beautiful participants include Coca-Cola Enterprises, Lockheed Martin, and the local affiliate of the National Soft Drink Association. Barry F. Scher, vice president for public affairs at Giant Food Inc., serves as Keep Washington, D.C. Beautiful’s chair.

Jim Dougherty, legal chair of the D.C. Sierra Club chapter, remembers Scher well. In 1987, Scher and some other current Keep Washington, D.C. Beautiful board members helped defeat environmentalists in a bitter initiative over legislation in D.C. that would have required stores to accept empty bottles and return deposits on them. Opponents argued that the measure would simply make low-income minorities pay more for soft drinks—a claim that gave the campaign an important racial tint. When the dust settled, the pro-deposit side lost 45 percent to 55 percent in a citywide vote.

Although the soft-drink industry apparently has decided to let bygones be bygones, many environmentalists are still bitter over the rancorous referendum fight. Dougherty was invited by administration officials to join the Washington KAB board of directors this year. He declined.

Environmentalists have long charged that KAB was founded in the “throwaway” container days of the early ’50s as an industry effort to combat regulation of the growing beverage and packaging industries. KAB managed to pick up support from groups like the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society during the ’60s, after launching its “Every Litter Bit Hurts” ad campaign. And with the Iron Eyes Cody ad, KAB also earned a place in the public consciousness as a white hat in the fight for environmental justice.

Then, in the ’70s, a slew of efforts around the nation to pass mandatory bottle-deposit bills forced the allies apart. Environmental groups claim that then-KAB President Roger Powers lobbied against bottle legislation in California, even though KAB officials say the group remained publicly neutral. Hostilities came to a head in 1976, when American Can Co. Chair William F. May, speaking at a KAB board meeting in New York, allegedly labeled bottle-bill proponents “communists.”

KAB spokesperson Becky Lyons now says those comments were “taken out of context.” In any case, the tiff over bottle legislation prompted the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and a host of other environment groups to quit KAB. “They wanted us to take a stand in favor of bottle bills,” says Lyons.

The question of KAB’s professed neutrality remains an issue its local affiliates have to address. “We’re a nonprofit educational organization; we’re not a lobbying organization,” says Gloria Mobley, executive director of Keep Washington, D.C. Beautiful.

Patricia Franklin, of the Arlington-based Container Recycling Institute, sees KAB’s official stance as little more than a cover. “They say they’re not in the fray,” she says, “but the members who support them definitely are, and they fund these local [anti-litter] groups.”

Lingering suspicions like these have not kept the mayor’s office from throwing its full-fledged support behind KAB. Despite its setback in accessing city funding, KAB has managed to insinuate itself into the top ranks of the Williams administration. The official Keep Washington, D.C. Beautiful contact person listed on KAB’s Web site is Michael Carter, deputy director of operations for the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW). Carter helped lobby for a city contribution to the local KAB, arguing that he didn’t view it as a contract, but rather as “a partnership.”

Keep Washington, D.C. Beautiful held its last board meeting on Sept. 14 in a DPW conference room at the city’s Reeves Center of Municipal Affairs. Carter attended the meeting. So did Spaulding and two other city officials: Interim DPW Director Leslie Hotaling and Lafayette A. Barnes, a senior policy analyst in the mayor’s office.

Carter estimates that D.C. has contributed around $100,000 to KAB-sponsored activities in the last year in the form of “in-kind” contributions of staff, equipment, and logistical support. The help went to cleanup efforts like last spring’s Great American Cleanup campaign along the Anacostia River.

Whatever the benefits to the city’s cleanup programs, there’s no question that the association has also paid off for the mayor, whose economic-development programs depend on corporate good will and new investments.

“They’re able to get the mayor out to all their events, and the mayor is hard to schedule,” says Elizabeth Berry, who sits on the Sierra Club’s executive committee and the mayor’s Environmental Advisory Council. Berry would rather see the city put its cleanup dollars into much-needed street and alley cleaning, improved garbage collection—a perennial city problem area—and its broken curbside recycling system, which currently has only a 15 percent compliance rate. That, in fact, is exactly where the D.C. Council redirected the mayor’s KAB appropriation request in the current budget.

“[The mayor] has only got part of the story here,” says Berry. “He’s not fully informed on this group.”

The mayor’s office seems genuinely mystified by the depth of ill will felt by some environmental critics toward the KAB program. “The mayor’s attitude is, ‘Hey, if it helps, let’s get it going,’” says spokesperson Peggy Armstrong. Other sources in the mayor’s office say that, behind the scenes anyway, the administration has been fairly blunt with the critics in noting that it sees nothing but dividends for the city in its partnership with KAB. As one mayoral aide put it, the city has nothing to lose, no matter what KAB’s agenda. Whether or not KAB is a corporate “front,” the aide says, the soft-drink industry could successfully fight any future bottle legislation without KAB’s help.

At the moment, hardly anyone other than Ward 8 Democratic activist Phil Pannell is talking about new bottle legislation in D.C. All the same, Dougherty and other environmentalists contend that KAB’s main purposes is as a vehicle to head off any future bottle-bill initiatives. “They’re there with their motor running,” he says.

“It’s a nonissue,” counters Jim Wareck, special assistant to the mayor on environmental affairs. “Let’s utilize this organization for the community spirit it provides….So what if the money comes from Giant? We shouldn’t take Giant’s money? Is it dirty money?”

Scher, for his part, says the environmentalists’ energies would be better spent working with KAB rather than against it. “If they [the critics] would spend as much time working with us as they do opposing us, this would be a cleaner city,” he says. Scher also denies any hidden agenda on the issue of bottle legislation. He argues that an effective city recycling program—one of KAB’s goals—would make a bottle-deposit bill moot.

Not that the industries behind KAB have given up their aversion to bottle bills. Requiring stores to take back empty bottles is costly and cumbersome, says Ellen Valentino, executive vice president of the D.C. Soft Drink Association. “In effect, they make every store in the District a [trash-] transfer station,” she says.

Replies Neil Seldman, president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and one of KAB’s foremost critics: “They want to socialize the costs of disposal and privatize the profits.”

Although KAB officials deny that they’re organized to fight bottle bills wherever they spring up, they don’t deny a certain enlightened self-interest in the cleanup efforts they sponsor. “This organization was started by a group of executives who were tired of seeing their brand names advertised in the litter stream,” Lyons says. “They didn’t want to see their advertising on the side of the road.” CP