A better Brita, thanks to Beth

December 11, 2008


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.”

No TP for pee pee (Day 191)…

September 7, 2007

TP roll

The original plan for this challenge was to be all about the small changes. There are plenty of other green bloggers going to extremes, like No Impact Man or EnviroWoman, but the whole point of my project is that it’s geared towards the average person, not the Dalai Lama (but hey, D-to-the-L, if you’re reading this — rock on!).

That said, thinking up 365 ways to lessen my ecological footprint isn’t exactly easy, and at this point I’ve already resorted to fairly drastic measures — unplugging the fridge, not using my oven, chopping off my hair, constructing a compost bin from scratch, etc.

So after emailing Colin incessantly, convincing him to reveal to me the all-too-personal details of his TP-free lifestyle, then stumbling upon Crunchy’s cloth-wipe challenge, I’ve decided today’s move will be more like a half-step towards something bigger: I’m going to eliminate toilet paper.

For now, it’ll be for #1, as I can’t quite handle doing it for #2 (especially not as I’m going to be interviewing Jake Gyllenhaal and shaking his Oscar-worthy hand today), but it’ll happen a little further down the road.

In place of toilet paper, I’ll be using a squirty water bottle, doing a quick rinse and then, well, pretty much shaking my booty dry. Maybe I’ll even bring a boombox into the bathroom and play some Rihanna tunes so it could be like a mini dance party!

Or… um… not.

Image of recycled TP roll courtesy of Grassroots

My lap wins with napkins (Day 181)…

August 28, 2007


… Cloth napkins, that is, because as of today I won’t be using anymore disposable paper napkins whether at home or at a restaurant. I’ve got my own organic cotton one that I’ll be keeping in my purse at all times, ready to catch errant sandwich crumbs during lunch, wipe my bicycle seat dry if it’s been raining or wave goodbye to my true love on a train platform as he presses his hand against the window. Or something like that.

Photo courtesy of Wade From Oklahoma on Flickr

Double-sided or nothing (Day 163)…

August 10, 2007

print job

I don’t have a printer. Whenever I order or book anything online, there’s always that email telling me to print the page for my records. Well, I don’t really have records, either, and I’m not about to waste paper on back-up copies of receipts.

But there is the occasional document I need to have in tangible form — like my flight information or boarding pass, for example — and so in this case I’ll use the printer at my parents’ house or at the office. So often, though, when you print something out, there are a couple pages at the end with nothing on them other than the URL of a webpage or a paragraph of legal disclaimers in fine print, and it’s silly to toss these out, even if they are destined to be recycled.

So from now on, whenever I’m printing anything — unless maybe if it’s my résumé — I’m going to check first to see if there’s any scrap paper I can use in place of a new sheet. And if it’s a bigger job, I’ll make sure to change the settings on my computer so that it knows to print double-sided.

Now if only those HP printer cartridges came with soy-based ink…

BioBag, you’re it (Day 148)…

July 26, 2007


Ever since I got that little nylon tote bag that fits in my purse, I haven’t needed a single plastic bag. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t using them — I had a bunch stored up from previous shopping trips, which I was keeping under my sink and gradually using up for various things, such as a liner for my bathroom garbage bin.

Well, I finally ran out of them (which goes to show how many I’d amassed). I wanted to get some sort of small waste bag of a similar size that wasn’t made from plastic, so I went for the BioBags. Made mostly out of corn starch, it can be recycled but also biodegrades in 10 to 45 days.

Hopefully, this will be the official end of any and all plastic bags in my life.

Cutting the juice loose (Day 137)…

July 15, 2007

juice bottles

To go along with yesterday’s post about giving up all canned beverages, today I’m also going to be giving up all those pre-packaged juices, including both the bottled and boxed variety (On a side note: if you’re looking for an amusing form of procrastination, enter the search term “drink box” at Flickr.com and you’ll find a lot of pictures of people either drunk and boxing, drunk and in a box, or drunk with a box on their head).

Almost all such juices are full of high fructose corn syrup and other artificial sweeteners, with next to no real juice in them at all unless it’s from concentrate. And even the ones that do seem healthy still come in plastic or glass — which, yes, can be recycled, but it’s much more environmentally friendly to simply buy some fruit and eat it.

The only juices I ever really buy anyway are those green ones with spirulina and added vitamins and lots of other stuff I’d never actually purchase on its own. But if I’m really craving that, I can always walk next door to Fresh with my own glass and get them to make one for me.

Photo courtesy of Kyler Storm on Flickr

Time to ban the can (Day 136)…

July 14, 2007

Is anything that comes in a can good for you? I’m talking beverages here, like Coke, Sprite, Mountain Dew, Red Bull and so on. I can’t think of a single canned liquid that has any nutritional value whatsoever, but that’s just one reason why I’m banning them as of today — the other is that, while pop cans can be recycled, it’s always better to reduce, and with my trusty water bottle on me at all times, there’s really no reason to indulge in anything other than Toronto’s finest.

Sometimes I’d get beer in cans, but now that I’m drinking local stuff it’s always in bottles. I like the occasional iced tea, but I can always make my own. And I’m sure I’ll get the occasional craving for a Brio or a Limonata, but otherwise I think this change will be pretty easy, and by the end of the year, my pancreas will surely thank me.