Keep America Beautiful with Helen Lowman

October 1, 2020

Helen Lowman joined Keep America Beautiful as President & CEO in May 2017 with more than 20 years of leadership experience in the areas of international diplomacy and development, youth engagement, environmental education, disaster resilience, global leadership, volunteerism, social justice, and human rights. From 2010 to 2017, Helen served as an appointee of the President of the United States in the senior foreign service and the senior executive service. Prior to joining Keep America Beautiful, she was Director-Individual and Community Preparedness at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Washington, D.C., overseeing programs to increase citizen and community preparedness while encouraging disaster and crisis resilience.

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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact podcast. I am John Shegerian and I am so honored and excited to have with us today Helen Lowman. She is the president and CEO of Keep America Beautiful. Welcome to the Impact podcast Helen.

Helen Lowman: Thank you, John. I am so happy to be here.

John: Well, it is wonderful to have you here in the middle of September and you are in Connecticut and I am in Fresno, California, but we sound like we are almost in the same room together, almost.

Helen: We, basically– basically, we are.

John: We are. So, you have been with Keep America Beautiful as its president and CEO since May of ’17. So, before we get talking about all the great things that you are doing at Keep America Beautiful, can you please share with our listeners a little of the hello moment, backstory, your bio, what did you do before leading up to this very important position?

Helen: Yes. So, well before– right before, I was actually in Washington, DC and had been working for the federal government both at FEMA and at Peace Corps. So, at FEMA, I was Director of Individual and Community Preparedness. So, working across the country to try and encourage individuals and communities to take steps to prepare for disasters which, as we know, is becoming more and more important as the number of disasters increase. You are– in California, you are experiencing one of those right now.

John: Right.

Helen: Unfortunately, with the fires.

John: Yes.

Helen: But, at the same time we are seeing hurricanes and tropical storms hit Texas and Louisiana and there are things that individuals and communities can do to prepare for those disasters. So, that was what I was doing immediately before. I spent many, many years working for the Peace Corps both as staff, also, did my volunteers but, interestingly enough, early in my career, I worked in the state of Texas. I am actually from Texas. I grew up there and worked for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, with communities in Texas to increase recycling and to prevent waste from going into landfills and that was really when I first became familiar with Keep America Beautiful because I would go to these communities and the municipal leaders would say, “Oh, go speak to Donna with Keep Lubbock Beautiful. Go speak to Terry with Keep Houston Beautiful,” or you know, I mean there were these local leaders that were running their Keep America Beautiful affiliate and they were the ones who are really making things happen in their communities. I ended up during that time serving on the Keep El Paso Beautiful board and the Keep Austin Beautiful board, and so, yes. So, when I was at FEMA and I was looking to leave, I got a call from a recruiter who said, “I am not sure you would be interested in this but have you ever heard of Keep America Beautiful?” And I was like, “Wow, my life has come full circle,” and I said, “I love Keep America Beautiful. I love the affiliates and would be thrilled to be considered for that job.” And so, it has just been really fortunate that I was offered the position and I have been here now for three years and I have the greatest job in the world.

John: So, Helen, it is heartening to hear of someone of your background and quality wanted to go with one of the most iconic, and brands, and recycling, and environment in America. We all grew up with Keep America Beautiful.

Helen: Yes, absolutely. Everybody, it is interesting, I mean if you are thirty-five and above, forty and above, you know the organization because of all the famous public service ads-

John: Yes.

Helen: -that we had on television at that time and when there were only three television stations, most likely you saw them, but you know it is one of those things now, it is a little bit harder and it–

John: It is true.

Helen: Younger generations do not necessarily know of us. So, we are trying to do more to really get out on digital and social media to become– kind of renew the relevance of Keep America Beautiful for a younger audience.

John: That is so interesting, and for our listeners out there, I am on your website right now. It is a gorgeous website. Keep America Beautiful is at kab.org.

Helen: Yes.

John: kab.org and it is gorgeous and it is full of great information and action steps and I want to get into that. So, first of all, how do you evolve a brand, a legacy, and an iconic brand like Keep America Beautiful from our generation to the next generation, a more social media digital generation?

Helen: Well, that is exactly what you do. I mean, there are so many different platforms and so many different ways to spread the word and what is great about this generation is that they really care. They are really leading this movement now and Keep America Beautiful is a movement, that is the thing about it, is there are– last year, we had five million people either volunteer for us or participate in our programs, which is incredible. We have six hundred and fifty affiliate communities across the United States that are the grassroots leaders of what we do, and I like to say it is really, at that the top level, it is really our job to support them and to make their jobs easier because what they do in their own communities and at the grassroots level is really the most important thing and it is those five million people that are making it happen every day.

John: That is tremendous. Is this issue now more important than ever before with regards to what is going on with the pandemic, the COVID-19 pandemic?

Helen: It is a really great question, John, because what we have seen– so, we work in three pillar areas, we work to end litter, we work to improve recycling, and we worked to beautify public spaces, so to plant trees and create public spaces that are clean, green, and beautiful. What we have seen is the pandemic has caused litter to increase in a different way. So, we are seeing masks, we are seeing gloves, we are seeing wipes spread in the litter stream across the country. It is really, really unfortunate. If I could give just one message right now, that is, that those things belong in the trash, they do not belong in parking lots. I think we are seeing people leave the grocery store and they are taking off their masks if it is a single-use mask, they are taking off gloves and wipes and they are dropping those in the parking lot, assuming that somebody who works at that store will come out and pick them up.

Helen: But, then, you are just putting that person in danger and you are putting them in a difficult situation and a dangerous situation, and so, we ask people to take responsibility for their own PPE and put it in a bag, a plastic bag, or put it– there are trash cans in front of stores, put it in that trash can, do not drop it on the ground because what happens is, and this happens with any litter, is that if it is on the ground and it rains then the rain will then wash that litter, those masks and gloves, into a storm drain and it ends up in our rivers and lakes and frankly it then ends up in our oceans and it will harm marine debris, turtles, and different marine debris think it is food, they eat it. Birds will see it and eat it and it kills them, and so, it is really important that we do everything we can to put those items, the PPE, into a trashcan.

John: Helen, it is incredible to me that in 2020 we have– am I right or wrong or am I close, about eleven bottle bills in America?

Helen: So, yes, I think what you are– so, waste is a really interesting subject in the United States.

John: Yes.

Helen: It is– so, for example, recycling is very local. So, every town has their own recycling system or recycling process. So you could live, for example, in the town where I live in Connecticut and have a process that accepts glass and plastic and aluminum, and then you could move three blocks away across town lines and have a completely different system that maybe accepts different types of film, plastic film or accepts different items, but does not accept glass. So, wherever you live, the important thing is that you find out what is accepted in your particular local system. It is– to have national standards would be very helpful, but we are not there yet. At this point, it is all local and so it is really the person who, the homeowner, or the renter or whoever is living there needs to find out what is accepted by their local recycling system and it is only then that we can prevent contamination of the recycling stream.

John: For our listeners out there who have just joined us, we have got Helen Lowman with us today. She is the president and CEO of Keep America Beautiful. You could find Keep America Beautiful and all their important initiatives at www.kab.org. Helen, there is not a day or at least a week that goes by where I do not read another article or see another video about the plastic problem, the plastic problem in our landfills and our oceans, and still the massive proliferation of consumer plastic that is going into our waste system and clogging up our ecosystem. What is the real plastic problem and how can our listeners take action?

Helen: Thank you for asking that question. It is a very, very good question and really what it comes down to is recycling. You know, we want to create a circular economy with regards to plastic, and frankly, with all materials. Whatever we can do to get those products back into the recycling stream is absolutely key and, unfortunately, Americans do not recycle as much or as often as we should. There is huge demand– those products are actually valuable, that the plastic that has been used and can be put back into the recycling stream is extremely valuable, and so when that happens, when a person takes, let us say a plastic bottle, and they recycle it then there is actually demand from the major brands out there to get that plastic back and to put it back into another bottle so that they can continue to keep it in a circular economy, in a circular system, and not have it end up in the landfill or end up as waste. It is a valuable commodity and it needs to be put back into the stream.

John: How come though, Helen, when we travel to Europe or even to Japan and other small countries in Asia, recycling and sustainability in circular economy behavior seem to be part of their culture and DNA and it has not been that way in the US. Is that an education issue we have here? Is it a cultural issue? Is it a governmental or business issue, or all of those issues combined?

Helen: I think you have hit on it. I think it is all of those issues combined. I think there is something about the culture. I think that those are countries that have national standards. I think that the carrot-and-stick shall we say is greater and stronger in those cultures. I think that there is a social norm around recycling and individual responsibility that we have not gotten to yet, but that we will, we will get there. There is the need to increase access to recycling, not everybody in America actually has access to recycling. We take for granted, where I am, that someone comes and gets my recycling from my curb but not everybody has curbside recycling and not everybody has access to it in the United States. And so, we need to do more to increase that and we need to make it clear that this is a responsibility that we all share. Everybody shares it, individuals, government, and producers all share in the responsibility to make sure that we are all doing the right thing.

John: How does– as you said, it is fragmented as you pointed out what you are doing in your town in Connecticut, one town over might be different, could be different right down the road in New York City and up the road in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. How do you as the leader of KAB, Keep America Beautiful, become the common thread that ties together all these thousands of different community-based programs and put out messaging that is understandable and actionable to America?

Helen: Yes, it is a great question, because we do a ton of public education and we do a ton of public education on recycling and on not littering and different things. We still, today, publish or produce a great number of PSAs on this issue and what we do is we try to put out messaging that is nationwide. So, for example, obviously not littering, that is a nationwide message.

John: Right.

Helen: Do not throw your trash on the ground. We try to give recycling messages, pro recycling messages on things that are recyclable across the country. So, for example, plastic drinking bottles, those are recyclable everywhere and no matter what, your plastic drink bottle should go in the recycling bin and with the cap on. So, some people are confused, “Do I leave the cap on? Do I take the cap off?” So, our messages are universal. Yes, put the bottle in the recycling bin and leave the cap on. The things that you should not put in the recycling bin that is universal are things like plastic bags. So, those just contaminate the stream, so you want to be sure that you take that, put things in your recycling bin that are outside of a plastic bag, that they are free and just put in the bin, that there is no contamination with plastic bags. So we know that is universal and there is a saying that a lot of recyclers use, which is, “When in doubt, leave it out.”

John: Right, right, got it.

Helen: Meaning, that if you are not sure if that is recyclable or not, just put it in the trash or check, better yet, take the time to check with your local your local waste hauler, your local recycler and check with them to see if it can actually be put in into the recycling bin.

John: Therefore, you do not contaminate the recycling stream and diminish its value.

Helen: Exactly, exactly.

John: Got it.

Helen: And a lot of people will take a look at the little chasing arrows and say, “Oh, it is recyclable,” but that actually is not necessarily the case. Not everything with the little triangle, that is the chasing arrows, necessarily can go into every recycling bin because again, there are certain local standards of things that can be recycled in that community or things that cannot.

John: Got it, got it. We have a whole group of listeners in the United States and around the world who did not grow up with the PSAs that you and I did with on the– back then on the three channels as you pointed out.

Helen: Yes.

John: Which, it sounds incredible to be three channels.

Helen: I know, how many– like we have like hundreds now.

John: And they still complain there are not enough channels, right?

Helen: There are too many it confuses me.

John: There are too many, right. There are too many.

Helen: Too many choices.

John: Can you share with our listeners, your act– your organization is one of action and pro-action, can you share some great examples of some important programs that are coming up in October, November that you want our listeners to engage with?

Helen: Yes, there are so many things that your listeners could participate in. This year, we actually pushed– we have a program called the Great American Cleanup and we pushed the Great American Cleanup by a few months because of COVID. So, generally, it is in the spring but this year it is going to go through October 18th. So, right now, there are litter cleanups happening. There is a tree-planting happening. There are many things that your listeners can participate in and if they are interested they can go to our website at kab.org and click on the volunteer button right at the top, on the right, there is a volunteer button and that will lead them to finding events and programs that are happening right near them. So, it will allow them to connect with their local affiliate organization.

Helen: And then, we have a couple of other things happening, we generally have a gala every year in New York City, and this year, it is actually going to be virtual. It is going to be online and so it is accessible to everyone. You do not have to live in or around New York City to come and so that is going to be on October 28th and there is information about that also on our website at kab.org, and then on November 15th, it is America Recycles Day. America Recycles Day is a single day of awareness about recycling and we have a lot going on our website as well on that day. We ask people to take a pledge to recycle more if they are already recycling or to start recycling if they have not, and there will be information about how to– if you do not have curbside access where there are drop-offs, but just how to begin recycling or how to do more and how to do it correctly without contaminating the recycling stream. So, that is on November 15th. There are tons to find out on our website at kab.org and so we just invite people to find what is right for them, to figure out how they want to participate, and to go to our website and volunteer.

John: Helen, post-pandemic, at some point we are going to get to the other side. God-willing, science is going to win here-

Helen: It will, we will get to the other side, for sure, we will.

John: -we will, and as I tell people, we are not going to go to a new normal, we are going to go to a new better. How does that–

Helen: That is right.

John: Really, and it pays to be positive now. And so, how, with regards to Keep America Beautiful, what is in the future? Talk a little bit about your vision for the future post-pandemic when we could all work together with Keep America Beautiful to make America a cleaner and better place to live in.

Helen: Yes, so, I am really very hopeful. I mean, I think again that this generation coming up is– they are so informed and they care so much about the environment, about climate, about reducing their waste in ways that we have never seen before and so I just have great hope for the future and for what is coming next, and honestly, in many ways, I look to them to teach me because they have really good ideas and they are really passionate about the environment and about the world and the shape that we are all– and how we are taking care of it, the shape we are leaving it in.

John: Helen, for those out there that are involved with nonprofits or large organizations that are for-profit, public or private, how can they become a partner of Keep America Beautiful?

Helen: So, reach out to us at any time. That is also can– there is a way to connect with us on the website and we have since our founding, we have really worked in a model of tri-sector partnership. So, everything we do is really built on that idea of shared responsibility. So, we work with local and state level and federal governments, and the federal government. We work with our affiliates around the country and we work with businesses and corporations to find solutions to what is right for our communities in order to ensure that everyone lives in a beautiful community and everyone lives in a clean, green space and has access to public spaces that are clean and green.

John: Well, Helen, you are the reason why I do the Impact podcast. You and your great colleagues at Keep America Beautiful are making important impacts, to make the world a better place. For that, I am very grateful. I am really appreciative of your time today. You are always welcome back here, and for listeners out there, and again, to find Keep America Beautiful, please go to www.kab.org. Helen Lowman, you are a great guest and also an important person, and thank you for making the world a much better and greener place to live in.

Helen: Well, thank you, John. This has been a wonderful time. I appreciate it and best of luck to you. I will come back, anytime.

John: You are always welcome.

Helen: Okay, thank you so much.