A better Brita, thanks to Beth


Just thought I’d fill everyone in on my recent interview with the fabulous Beth Terry, aka Fake Plastic Fish, for the National Post (that’s her in the photo above… isn’t she cute?). We spoke about her Take Back The Filter campaign, about tackling Brita bureaucracy, and what 581 mouldy filters smell like. The full story is here, and below (P.S. scroll down to the bottom and check out Beth’s Top 5 tips for aspiring activists!):

(Also, P.P.S. I promise, one of these days, I will eventually stop talking about water and filters and Brita)

National Post
December 11, 2008
By Vanessa Farquharson

There are 581 mouldy Brita filters stinking up Beth Terry’s dining room, and she couldn’t be more pleased.

The 43-year-old accountant will eventually deliver all of these back to Brita, the water-purification company, to be properly recycled — something that’s only possible thanks to a campaign she spearheaded called Take Back The Filter. It took a lot of back-and-forth letter writing and phone calling, numerous posts on her blog, “Fake Plastic Fish,” and over 16,000 petition signatures, but on Nov. 18, Terry finally succeeded.

In a press release, the company explained that as of January, consumers across North America would be able to recycle their old filters by dropping them off at participating Whole Foods locations, where they’ll be included along with yogurt lids and other No. 5 polypropylene plastics in the Preserve “Gimme 5” program (those who aren’t near a Whole Foods can mail them directly to Preseve; see www.recycline.com/gimme5).

Eventually, the filters will be turned into new plastic products, from toothbrushes and drinking cups to cutting boards and other types of kitchenware.

It’s a significant move on behalf of Brita — which is owned by Clorox — because they had recently spearheaded their own enviro-campaign called FilterForGood, using television ads and a website to inform the public about the amount of waste generated by plastic water bottles, and how using something like a Brita filter can produce clean-tasting water without the need for petroleum. It was somewhat hypocritical, however, considering the Brita filters themselves are made of plastic and must be replaced every few months; as well, the only place to recycle them up until now was in Europe.

When Terry — who lives in Oakland, CA, and keeps track of all the plastic she purchases and discards as part of her green blog — realized she couldn’t recycle her filter, she decided to email Brita and ask why. In return, she got a standard form letter explaining there was a lack of recycling infrastructure available in the U.S.

“I sent another email after that,” says Terry, “asking why Brita was able to build its own facility in Europe but not here, and then I didn’t really get anything from them, so I just kind of blogged about it and ranted, then eventually let it go.”

Sometime later, however, when she was checking her Google analytics to see what search terms had directed people to her site, Terry noticed the words “Brita” and “recycling” came up a lot. This prompted her to ask around and see if there was interest in starting a campaign, and so began the process of letters, petitions, websites and meetings with various environmental organizations.

And how, exactly, did she end up with 581 used Brita filters in her dining room?

“We were inspired by a bunch of guys who were collecting those promotional AOL CDs you get in the mail,” says Terry. “Their aim was to return a million of them back to the company. We liked the idea of that and decided to try for 1,000 Brita filters.”

So she set up a P.O. Box, but realized she’d still have to store them somewhere, and somehow, they ended up under her dining room table.

“It smells pretty bad.”

The reason for the foul odour, she explains, has to do with moisture.

“Some of them were all right, but others were soaking wet and full of water, and that was the worst because the Ziploc bags holding them would collect all this mould and bacteria. You’ll notice the Brita press release says they’re collecting dry filters.”

In the end, she received filters from all over the place; in fact, after California, Ontario had one of the highest mail-in rates. While Terry never reached the 1,000 mark, this is probably a good thing. It not only demonstrates the efficacy of her campaign, it means her dining room will probably smell a lot better come January.

What’s most impressive about the Take Back The Filter campaign, though, is that it began with a single, frustrated woman not knowing how to get rid of her water filter and ended with massive structural change at a multi-national corporation in just months.

One might guess Terry, herself, is astounded by such a feat. But she downplays it.

“When I received the call from Brita saying they were going to make an announcement and basically go ahead with [the recycling plan], it wasn’t as big of a rush as it maybe should have been,” she says. “Brita is obviously a huge company, but Clorox was already taking steps toward improving its environmental image, like with its Greenworks line of natural cleaning products, which were developed with the Sierra Club. So we weren’t really pushing a huge boulder. It was moving slowly to begin with — we just got behind it and helped to push it faster, and in a slightly different direction.”

Terry — who now chooses to drink plain tap water without any filtration mechanism — believes that what ultimately convinced Brita to make such a significant change probably had more to do with keeping customers happy than saving the environment.

“I think they just needed to know that people really wanted it,” she says.

Beth Terry’s top 5 tips for aspiring activists:

1)    First, conduct research — a lot of it. “Find out what the company is already doing, what their position is and what factors are involved.”
2)    Put out feelers. “See who else is concerned about the issue and what organizations are already doing something or may get behind you.”
3)    Connect online. “Get in touch with bloggers, the media or other connected, influential people. Being creative by making little icons and badges that bloggers can easily put on their sites also helps.”
4)    Don’t go after a company that has no desire to change. “Start with companies that are already moving in an eco-conscious direction.”
5)    Pick up the phone and call people. “You never know who will support you, so just start talking to anyone who will listen.”

17 Responses to A better Brita, thanks to Beth

  1. Toby says:

    Wouldn’t it be better to make a filter with a refillable / reusable shell that recycling them?

    And yes, cute.

  2. gettinggreen says:

    Yeah, we spoke very briefly about that, Toby — I’m not sure how they’d do that; perhaps they’d need to sell packets of the charcoal blend of whatever it is that you could easily pour into your current plastic cartridge. But then could you put the used stuff in the compost? Or is it too toxic? I really have no idea how any of this works… personally, I think I’m going to do what Beth did and get my water fully tested, then just try to drink plain tap water and put up with the somewhat metallic taste.

  3. jenn says:

    It’s true – I have met Beth in person and she is REALLY really cute. And smart and articulate and she has two of the most darling kitties.

    Good article – I’m so proud of Beth’s success!

  4. Vanessa, I put on lipstick just for you!


    Thanks for writing about the campaign! I hope others will get inspired to go out and make a difference.


  5. Oh, and Toby — Brita says that they are actually researching ways to redesign the filter to be refilled. There are many complicated factors involved, including regulations set by water filter certification boards. So this current plan is really the best way to get recycling going in the mean time.

    They are also researching, with Preserve, how to recycle the faucet filters.

  6. Great story. I just started following your blog… since I first heard about it in Friedman’s, “Hot, Flat and Crowded.” Good stuff.

  7. […] to convince Brita in North America to take back and recycle their filters; Vanessa Farquharson of Green as a Thistle and the National Post interviews her and learns how it happened. It is an excellent guide for […]

  8. yosh hash says:

    Wow, very inspirational stuff! In case anyone else is planning a similar sort of “take back” campaign, I would like to suggest that the timing is ripe for this sort of thing: well established online communities like freecycle and full circle make it quite easy to amass thousands or millions of anything.

  9. […] to convince Brita in North America to take back and recycle their filters; Vanessa Farquharson of Green as a Thistle and the National Post interviews her and learns how it happened. It is an excellent guide for […]

  10. Ariel says:

    Thanks for nothing – your actions have actually harmed the environment, not helped it.

    You want people to MAIL you a filter to recycle it? Seriously? And this is helping the environment? The environmental cost of mailing something is far greater than the cost of making new plastic.

    Even if you walked the filter over to the plant, the environment cost of just recycling it is more than the cost of making new plastic.

    Just put the filter in the garbage. There is plenty of room (don’t believe the nonsense about running out of space, it’s not true).

    We are running out of water, and guess what is used when you recycle something? Tons of water. We are not running out of oil (despite the hype), and guess what plastic is made of?

    And for those those who want a refillable filter:

    They make those already, and they are much cheaper, last longer, and work better than faucet filters.

    They are called ordinary under the sink filters. The shell is kept, and you just change the carbon block inside them. The carbon block sometimes has a net around the carbon, but otherwise the only plastic is the end caps.

    (Buy only carbon block, not granular carbon. Besides the block working way better, there is no shell like there is with granular.)

    If you want to help the environment there are plenty of ways to do so, but recycling is not one of those ways. On the other hand it is the easiest way, and I guess it makes you feel good.

  11. […] as a Thistle celebrates Fake Plastic Fish. Reddit Stumble Upon del.icio.us […]

  12. julena says:

    Beth is fantastic. She made me realize things about plastic I never stopped to think about before. And she is an inspiration to all aspiring activists that things can be changed if we really decide it’s time.

  13. […] did Clorox cave?  Beth stated in her interview with Vanessa Farquharson of Green as a Thistle, and a journalist for the National Post, […]

  14. K Krishna says:

    Hello – how easy is it for Brita to make it so that the top screws off (the Brita Filter) so that you can put the mineral contents in the back garden? Then you can recycle the plastic as normal. Regards.

  15. extremely useful material, in general I imagine this is worthy of a bookmark, cheers

  16. […] your brand’s reputation. If you think your brand is above what green moms will say about it, read Beth Terry’s story and how she persuaded Clorox to provide recycling for Brita filters. If a company the size of […]

  17. […] catalyst for positive change.  As an example, she started the successful campaign to get Brita to take back it’s water filters for […]

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