Australia’s most iconic anti-litter movement captured the world’s attention when it began 50 years ago and significant progress has since been made. We look back at the organisation’s history.
What would the founder of Keep Australia Beautiful (KAB), the late Dame Phyllis Frost, say about the state of litter if she were still alive today?
Frost, who passed away in 2004, was known her commitment to causes, notably helping prisoners through the Victorian Women’s Prisons Council or combatting litter through the Keep Australia Beautiful movement.
In her address to the official launch of KAB NSW in 1975, Frost recounted how she was galvanised into anti-litter action. It followed her experience on a country highway between Melbourne and Bendigo in 1963.
En route to attend a meeting in Bendigo, Frost was feeling proud in a new car. In a small town called Elphinstone, a semi-trailer passed her by. Out of the window came fish and chip papers, a fruit peel and an old greasy rag. As a beer can bounced across the roof of Frost’s new car, she immediately pulled to the side of the road to inspect the damage.
Frost took a closer look at the scenery of the view behind her and to her horror found rolling plains strewn with paper, plastic bags, cans and bottles.
Soon after, she told the members of the National Council of Women of the experience and they agreed that the desecration needed to cease. In response, a group of service and voluntary organisations and a number of government departments were invited to join an anti-litter campaign.
There was no special name for the group in those days because anti-litter could too easily be confused with anti-liquor, which may in turn be perceived as un-Australian.
To that end, the group was called State Wide Civic Pride. Under the guidance of the then Minister of Local Government R J Hamer, the group adopted the name Keep Australia Beautiful Council. In 1968, the inauguration of the new look body was held.
Throughout KAB’s history, various programs which still exist today emerged. One of these is Tidy Towns, a concept borrowed from Ireland which commenced in 1968.
KAB Council WA on its website says it’s hard to think of a movement or campaign that has stirred such pride and action in our regional and remote communities than Tidy Towns. At the time, the competition accepted metro and regional entries and local government agencies, rather than communities, which are now in competition with one another.
GETTING ATTENTION FROM GOUGH
The 70s put the KAB movement on the map, with powerful publicity campaigns and educational approaches drawing support from government, celebrities, sporting heroes and the media.
By 1971, KAB’s National Association commenced, formed by KESAB and KABVIC by Colin Hills and Frost respectively. One year later, the then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam launched Live Without Litter Week.
The Prime Minister appeared on television urging each and every Australian to get behind the anti-litter week.
“If for one week each of us can concentrate on litter prevention, then we can extend this consciousness to an all-year round effort to keep our environment clean,” Whitlam said.
In the Live Without Litter Week, the Lord Mayor of Melbourne Cr A Whalley, Executive Director of KABC Gordon Cooper and then Premier R J Hamer all sported “Don’t rubbish Australia” t-shirts.
In 1974, KAB’s Dopes Rubbish Australia and Pig television campaigns launched. The Pig campaign urged communities not to be a “pig” and “keep it litter-free”, shaming those guilty of chucking stuff out the window or into their local basin.
In her 1975 reflection, Frost, a champion of social reform, estimated that litter was costing in the vicinity of $50 million a year to clean-up. At the time, KAB consisted of affiliations of major environmental, community and service organisations, including the environment protection authorities, gas and fuel bodies, water bodies, packaging companies and even the education departments.
Plastic manufacturers were also heavily involved, including the National Packaging Association, Plastic Institute, can makers and soft drink manufacturers. In that regard, Frost criticised the nay-sayers who took aim at their involvement in the process.
“Some fanatical but rather irrational conservationists view these last-named bodies as enemy forces in the battle for preservation of the environment,” Frost said.
“I believe, although some fanatics don’t concur with my belief, that to exclude them is just as ridiculous as debarring car manufacturers, salesman or drivers and those involved in the manufacture and sales of alcoholic drinks from taking any part in the fight against the road toll – as it is the misuse of their products that cause the road carnage.
“Let’s be realistic about it – the packaging and container people must be more involved than any other section of society if we are to win our battle.”
THE NATIONAL PICTURE
Since the various state and territory bodies operate independently, the achievements of the KAB movement are best looked at within each local jurisdiction.
Being Victoria-based, Frost remained at the coalface of Keep Australia Beautiful Victoria (KABV). KAB’s popularity even sparked attention from musical pop group ABBA.
In the 80s, events in Victoria recognised change took place at the grassroots with engagement from school children, holiday makers and beachgoers. Frost retired from her position as chairman of KABV in the 90s and the organisation kicked on with a range of new program initiatives like City Pride and Stationeers.
KESAB, a well-known organisation for community-based sustainability programs, presided over container deposit legislation in 1978. It also introduced the Waste Watchers program to schools in the mid 90s, opened a Statewide Recycling Education Centre in 2006 and introduced Australia’s first reverse vending machine in 2010.
NT, ACT, Queensland and Tasmania all embraced the Tidy Towns program over the years and in Queensland a variety of awards program rewarded positive behaviours. Additionally, the NSW branch held the first Litter Congress in 2014, which inspired various programs such as the EPA’s Hey Tosser! Campaign.
Now 16 years on from Frost’s passing, urbanisation has drastically changed the landscape and many stakeholders once involved in the KAB movement operate independently.
But despite the changes, stakeholders such as KAB Chair Dick Gross still affirm the organisation is still a grassroots community group and a “doer” rather than a “talker”.
Dick, who joined KAB at the ripe age of 60, was invited to join by longstanding litter stalwart the late Don Chambers.
He says that KAB has had strong times and less strong times, and now operates in a crowded space. Much of this, he attributes, is due to the industrialisation of waste management.
“Litter is dramatically different now in several ways. It dropped off the political agenda and now it’s dropping back in because of marine pollution and its effect on marine and human life,” Dick says.
On whether he ever sees a world without litter, Dick says that’s a dream, but questions whether it’s a pipe dream.
“I can’t see Australia ever getting rid of litter. We need punitive regulatory regimes and more resources and I don’t know if that will happen.”
In 2015, KABV changed its name to Keep Victoria Beautiful (KVB). In the wake of KAB’s 50th anniversary, Waste Management Review Editor Toli Papadopoulos sat down with current KVB CEO Sabina Wills to discuss some of the changes that have occurred over the past few decades.
“The purpose of the organisation is about people taking action to beautify their own environment. They’re not waiting for local government or state government, they’re taking action themselves,” Sabina says.
“We really embody that through the programs that we run where we enable volunteers to take action.”
Sabina says programs like Tidy Towns and Sustainable Cities have rewarded positive actions.
KVB embraced this and many other programs throughout the 2000s, engaging communities with initiatives such as the Stationeers, Sustainable Cities, Tidy Towns and Adopt a Roadside programs. For example, Adopt a Roadside sees volunteers equipped with safety training and other necessary resources to remove roadside litter and/or undertake revegetation works within Victoria’s arterial road network.
“We need to recognise our volunteers more and say thank you more. I think that’s an important part of KVB because the volunteers delivering those programs are creating a beautiful location,” Sabina says.
Highlighting some of KVB’s most successful programs, she cites Tidy Towns, noting the national program has helped bind communities together.
Dick says that Tidy Towns has inspired some healthy competition between communities.
In 2009, KVB also became part of Sustainability Victoria until 2015, when KVB formed a not-for-profit which reports to the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission. In addition to maintaining its initiatives from the early 2000s, KVB has entered new frontiers, including the development of a biodiversity report highlighting the accelerating rate of species loss.
Around 2016, Sabina joined KVB, after more than 20 years in the environmental services sector, including in government, associations and the private sector.
Reflecting on the past 50 years, Sabina says that although litter has reduced significantly, she laments on the overall rate of progress.
“I feel sad that we still have to pick up litter on the side of the road, that we haven’t in those 50 years transitioned away to it no longer being acceptable behaviour,” Sabina says.
“Yes, there’s been a huge reduction in litter, but it’s still there and that really saddens me.”
According to the National Litter Index by KAB, litter was up 0.9 per cent more in 2018-19 than it was in 2017/18 with 57,889 items counted. The biggest rises were observed in other glass, takeaway food and beverage packaging, offset to a degree by decreases linked to container deposit legislation.
In terms of how litter has changed over the decade, in 2008-09, there was almost 100,000 items counted. In 2018-19, that number sits just over 60,000. Taking into account population growth, there is far less litter than there was 10 years ago.
That being said, Sabina jokes that she wasn’t too upset when a litter run on the way to her office led to the discovery of a $50 note.
In terms of what lies on the immediate horizon, Sabina hopes to make some changes to KVB’s awards programs.
“The awards have been running over 30 years and I’ve certainly got a plan of how they’re going to look in 30 years. My big dream with the awards is for a state-based award and national-based award,” she says.
“I’d also love an international based awards to go to that next level. I think it is so important that everyone is proud of where they live and that sense of ‘my place is special’ is really important.”
But despite her dismay at the litter state of play, Sabina says if she were to ask herself what would Frost say in another 50 years’ time, given the changes over the past five decades, the future is unpredictable.
“It’s interesting what happened in the past 50 years. We’ve got an EPA and the EPA Act is getting re-written. So it is a bit hard to know how it will look in the future. I hope it’s going to look better, but then again I am an optimist,” she says.