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January 2007

Keep America Beautiful, better than ever

The organization Keep America Beautiful (KAB) has been around for 53 years – so long that it’s hard to remember a time before we’d heard of KAB’s The Great American Cleanup, Every Litter Bit Hurts, Clean-up Green-up Fix-up, or Earth Day.

Obsolete cell phones have become a recycling problem. The Wireless Alliance is helping Keep America Beautiful with cell phone recycling.

KAB vice president and managing director of KAB’s Great American Cleanup (GAC), Gail Cunningham, explained that KAB started up at about the same time that manufacturers started putting their names and logos onto disposable packaging – for snack foods, beverages, and all sorts of convenience products. At the same time, Americans were traveling the highways and tossing the packaging litter out of car windows. Brand names were prominent in gutters and fluttering along highways, which wasn’t the best way to advertise. Better to sponsor a clean-up campaign.

Over the years, GAC has grown to include 560 affiliates, more than 30,000 local events, a number of national sponsors, and a select few educational partners. All of that adds up to a lot of trash picked up, and a lot of materials recycled.

From its beginning 21 years ago, the GAC had a single sponsor, Glad. While Glad remains a sponsor today, the GAC became a multi-sponsored event in 1999, with national sponsors providing both in-kind donations and grants.

This year, Glad provided 4 million trash bags for local events. But trash bags aren’t enough. Waste Management provided containers, and Sparkle offered paper towels. Pepsi and Wrigley provided refreshments for events. Other national sponsors were Honda, Scott’s Miracle Gro, Troy-Bilt, Sam’s Club, and Firestone.

Cunningham said that during the 2006 GAC events, there were about 2 million volunteer who worked 7 ½ million hours in 15,000 communities. They picked up 228 million pounds of litter and debris, removed 18,000 junk cars, did underwater cleanups, and collected millions of pound of clothing for the needy.

Some events dealt with graffiti, planted trees and bulbs, or cleaned up illegal dump sites. Streets, beaches, nature trails, bike paths, parks and public lands all benefited from GAC events. Cunningham said that while all the events are part of the GAC, each has its own “hometown personality.”

Recycling plays a huge part in the program, with 38.5 million pounds of metal recycled, as well as 4.8 million pounds of electronics. But it’s never enough for GAC; the organization is always on the lookout for new materials to recycle. This past year, Sam’s Club sponsored the recycling of PET containers in a campaign called “Return the Warmth.” The goal was to collect 30 million bottles. In the end, 37 million were collected.

Cunningham said that the GAC events stretch across the country like “a fabulous patchwork quilt of all these activities going on in these communities.”

From the 2006 launch events in Biloxi and New York’s Times Square to the final results and press releases, the 3-month official GAC events stretch to fill a whole year. Each year, the next year’s participants are registering their upcoming events with KAB at the same time that the previous year’s participants are handing out awards and hosting ceremonies. “It’s not just about hanging the logo on your banner,” Cunningham said.

GAC now has two educational partners. The first, the Rubber Manufacturer’s Association, came onboard in 2002. Recently, the Wireless Alliance became the second educational partner, for cell phone recycling, after KAB sent out a mass mailing to manufacturers in a search for “a leading-edge program.”

“We have to be very selective in who we choose,” Cunningham said. The Wireless Alliance was chosen based on “both knowledge and reputation,” as well as its zero-waste policy.

“It’s been great that we’ve had this rapid advance in cell phone technology,” Cunningham said, but that rapid advance has also let to an explosion the number of cell phone discarded. Finding a way to recycle them was important to KAB.

For its part, The Wireless Alliance responded to KAB’s call to action because “They are the most reputable environmental organization in the United Stated,” said Jon Newman, vice president. “Our company is honored to work on this project with Keep America Beautiful.”

Next on Cunningham’s list is to partner with someone who can handle used clothing. She hopes to find one soon.

Keep America Beautiful. It’s not just a bumper sticker.

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