David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father

Misdirection and misinformation: Plastics and Parshat Ekev

Filthy rich corporate polluters paid for ads suggesting that people alone could clean up the world. But the people can't do it alone
Iron Eyes Cody in a trailer for the movie 'Sitting Bull.' (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons).
Iron Eyes Cody in a trailer for the movie 'Sitting Bull.' (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons).

April 22, 1970, was the first designated Earth Day. It was an initiative of Senator Gaylord Nelson, from Wisconsin. Although Nelson was a Democrat, the initiative received cross-party support.

The intent of Earth Day was to encourage students, who had mobilized to protest the Vietnam War, to have a single day to protest against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness and the extinction of wildlife.

Exactly a year later, on April 22, 1971, one of the most famous US public service announcements of all time aired, in support of the second Earth Day. It was funded by the Keep America Beautiful non-profit organization. It became known as the “Crying Indian” though its official title was, “People Start Pollution, People Can Stop It” and it was featured throughout the 1970s on television, billboards and print media. If you were around in the 1970s, you probably saw the ad.

The commercial features a native American named Iron Eyes Cody, who was already well known from Bob Hope’s “The Paleface.”

The Orion website describes the advertisement as follows:

He paddles his canoe down a pristine river to booming drumbeats. He glides past flotsam and jetsam. The music grows bombastic, wailing up a movie-soundtrack build. He rows into a city harbor: ship, crane, a scrim of smog. The Indian pulls his boat onto a bank strewn with litter and gazes upon a freeway.

‘Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country,’ intones a basso profundo voice, ‘and some people don’t.’ On those words, someone flings a bag of trash from a passing car. It scatters at the Indian’s feet. He looks into the camera for the money shot. A single tear rolls down his cheek.

‘People start pollution. People can stop it,’ declares the narrator.

This advertisement, along with Earth Day, was effectively the beginning of the modern conservation and environmental movement that sought to change consumer behavior.

The initial advertisement was followed by three further public service announcements featuring Iron Eyes Cody, and the actor who played the character continued to make public appearances supporting environmental causes up until his death in 1999.

However, Keep America Beautiful announced in February 2023 that it was retiring the advertisement because it is now considered inappropriate and that it was giving all the rights to the National Congress of American Indians Fund. In a statement on its website, KAB said:

On Earth Day in 1971, Keep America Beautiful first aired the now-famous ‘Crying Indian’ anti-pollution public service advertisement. And while it represented the heralding of the modern-day environmental movement, it also included imagery that stereotyped American Indian people and misappropriated American Indian culture, much to the dismay of the American Indian community.

But in fact, the advertisement was a fraud, and one could argue that it did much more harm than good.

I’m not talking about the fact that the actor playing Iron Eyes Cody was Italian-American actor Espera Oscar DeCorti who was not actually a native American. His long braids were a wig and his complexion darkened with makeup. That said, according to the Orion site, he “supported Indian rights, married an Indian, and adopted Indian children.” Perhaps today a similar advertisement would be careful to cast a native American, but that is not my gripe with it.

No, the real misdirection of the Crying Indian is that it sends a clear message that it is individuals who are responsible for the environment, rather than the large corporations who create the litter, the fumes, and the pollution in the first place. And this is not accidental.

Keep America Beautiful was founded in 1953 by the American Can Co. and the Owens-Illinois Glass Co., and later it was funded by more than 75 corporations, including beverage manufacturers, like Coke and Pepsi and their trade association, the National Soft Drink Association. Today, major funders include PepsiCo, Philip Morris, Waste Management, Anheuser-Busch, Georgia-Pacific, Coca-Cola, Home Depot, and McDonald’s.

The goal of the organization, and the Crying Indian, was to shift public perception that creating so much waste was a problem, and instead focus on the dangers of littering. The ad states, “People start pollution” – implying that each of us is responsible individually. It does not mention the multinational companies that are actually responsible.

In 1972, just a year after the Crying Indian, Oregon and Vermont passed legislation known as the “bottle bill” which required a five-cent deposit on glass bottles to encourage recycling. Two years later, California was considering enacting similar legislation, but Roger Powers, president of Keep America Beautiful, testified against it. The big corporations were not interested in recycling. They wanted their bottles to end up in garbage dumps and landfills which was cheaper and easier for them.

Caterpillar 826C landfill compactor being used at an Australian landfill site. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

About the same time, Keep America Beautiful put out a statement saying:

It is not the product’s fault that it is misplaced in the environment — it is the carelessness of the user of that product.

Rather than encourage recycling, the Crying Indian told people to pick up their litter and put it in the dump. The 1970s was not only the beginning of the environmental movement, but also the start of the disposable era where almost everything is designed to be used and thrown away.

Oh… Did I mention that trash hauling companies also contributed to Keep America Beautiful?

Writer Ted Williams wrote an article in 1990 in Audubon entitled “The Metamorphosis of Keep America Beautiful.” In it, he wrote:

Only in America could custom dispel the discarding of a perfectly good vessel simply because someone had quaffed the contents, but that’s what we do with 50 billion cans and bottles every year. An additional 50 billion or so are ‘recycled,’ a uniquely American interpretation of the word because they too are discarded, then crushed melted and remade, rather than simply washed and refilled. It’s as if we were a nation of dukes and earls, pitching our brandy snifters at the hearth.

So, the tragedy of the Crying Indian is the misdirection of the corporations funding Keep America Beautiful. Rather than accept the blame for creating so much waste, or the responsibility to recycle it, the corporations funding KAB encouraged people to pick up their litter. Don’t get me wrong, I’m also against littering. But the people who create the packaging and waste in the first place must also be held accountable.

Globally, less than 10% of plastic is recycled.

Israel is now pretty good with recycling deposits on bottles. As of December 1, 2021, all bottles up to five liters include a deposit, so that the empties can be returned to stores and the 30 agorah deposit received back. And more than 70% of bottles are returned to the stores.

However, recycling is also an example of misdirection. There is no real way of recycling plastic without degrading it, destroying it, and putting more pollution into the environment. Up until a few years ago, most plastic recycling happened in China, meaning it was shipped from around the world — adding transportation pollution to the environment and accidentally dropping plastic into the oceans along the way. But in 2018, China stopped accepting recycling from other countries, so most plastic sent for recycling ends up in landfills or incinerated.

In a 2022 article, Gruber et. al. found that we ingest about a credit card’s worth of microplastic every week. Even if the amount is less than that, it is still far more plastic that humans were designed to ingest.

Great Pacific Garbage Patch compared in size to Germany. (CC BY, PLASTIKATLAS/ Wikimedia Commons)

And every part of the environment and the food chain contains huge amounts of plastic. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is 1.6 million square kilometers of mostly microplastics – that is an area twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France.

Plastic was only invented in 1907, yet in just a bit more than a century, we have gone from Bakelite to the complete destruction of the environment.

Bakelite telephone at Bletchley Park. (CC BY, William Warby/ Wikimedia Commons)

Should you take your bottles for recycling? Of course you should. But it would be even better if we didn’t use plastic bottles in the first place. And for this we need the large manufacturers to help us.

This is the problem when we look for cause and effect to determine who is responsible. Keep America Beautiful and the Crying Indian advertisement wanted to focus on the individuals who litter, encouraging them to instead put their waste in a landfill. Other environmental agencies argued that we should be recycling, and that bottles should include a deposit returnable when the bottle is brought back. It is not that these are unimportant.

But the real cause of the pollution is the people who make the plastic. And who lobby legislators to allow them to continue doing so.

It is important for people to take ownership of their actions and responsibility for what they do. But if they don’t also look at the bigger picture, and the more fundamental reason, they will be unable to solve the problem and in fact exacerbate it.

This week’s Torah portion of Ekev brings a similar warning against focusing on the small, personal details and ignoring the bigger picture. Deuteronomy 8:11-17 state:

Be careful lest you forget the Lord, your God, and fail to keep His commandments, laws and statutes which I command you today. Lest you eat and become sated, build nice houses and dwell in them; As your herds and flocks increase, as you increase your silver and gold and everything you own increase. And your heart becomes proud, and you forget the Lord, your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage… And you say in your heart, ‘My strength and might did all this wealth for me.’

Moses warns the nation of the dangers of prosperity as they are about to enter the Land of Israel. He promises them that, with God’s help, they will succeed in conquering the land and will become wealthy. But the danger that follows is forgetting the big picture of how they got there and how they earned that wealth.

If a farmer in ancient Israel managed to raise a large herd of cows, it would provide him with both milk and meat. It would take great effort – many early mornings and nights with no sleep. Large initial outlay and lots of potential risks and pitfalls along the way. Then, perhaps he could trade his produce for greater wealth. His hard work will have paid off and he can build that home extension he has always dreamed of, and buy a better horse, a sharper plow, or more land. Eventually, he may become very wealthy indeed. And he would be justified in saying that it was due to his hard work, his wisdom and perhaps a bit of luck. That would all be true. But it would ignore the main reason for his success — God’s help. Without God, he would still be a slave to Pharaoh in Egypt, owning nothing but his suffering.

Rabbenu Bachya (on verse 17) explains that the Torah’s warning is against attributing one’s success to hard work and lucky stars. It is true that without hard work this farmer would not have achieved his success, and without luck he could have failed many times along the way. But Moses exhorts the Israelites to remember that although both hard work and good luck are important, ultimately the success comes from God.

If a person sits back and waits for God to do everything, they have abdicated their responsibility as a human. Their laziness will not contribute to making the world a better place. But if they work hard and succeed, they must not forget that God also gave them that success. And Moses warns of the tragedies that may befall them if they do forget God.

The rabbis of the Talmud use these verses to warn of the dangers of pride. In Sotah (4b) Rabbi Yochanan says:

Any person who has pride is considered as if he denied the fundamental principle, as the verse states, ‘And your heart becomes proud, and you forget the Lord, your God.’

Pride is a very difficult trait to work out. We need to take pride in our work and in our achievements. If we do not value our efforts and our successes, they become unattainable or worthless. If we do push ourselves to work hard and are successful, why should we not take pride in our accomplishments?

But if that pride leads us to think we achieved everything entirely on our own; if we forget about those that helped us along the way, both directly and indirectly, if we ignore those who came before us to pave the way, if we forget about the entire modern system of economics on which all success is now built, we are not a success but a failure. We can never take sole credit for our accomplishments.

Psychologically, this gives us greater freedom. We try to do our best. Sometimes we achieve our goals, sometimes we surpass them, and sometimes we fall short. But if we know that our task is to do the best we can, and after that it is out of our hands, we will neither be crushed by defeat, nor become haughty by success. This is true humility, which is the defining character trait of Moses. He dedicated almost his entire life to helping the Israelites. He risked his life for them and gave them everything he had and more. But he also knew despite his efforts, success or failure was not up to him. The outcome of his actions were God’s decision.

Going back to conservation, if we strive to recycle as much as we can and to ensure our waste is disposed of appropriately, we can certainly pat ourselves on the back. But if we stop there and think that is enough, without also pushing for systemic reforms, we have failed. Our pride will have caused us to forget the bigger problem.

Similarly, we must strive as hard as we can to improve the world and along the way, with a bit of luck, we may achieve success and even wealth. But if we forget everything else that helped us, and if we forget about God, our pride will have stolen our success from us.

The next series on WebYeshiva begins on August 22 and is entitled “A History of Selichot”. You can sign up on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar. Check out my website,
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