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.”


Water is the new oil, according to James Bond

November 27, 2008
Bad water baron! Bad!

Bad water baron! Bad!

After watching Quantum of Solace (yes, I know, I just effectively outdated this post by mentioning a movie that came out a month ago, but bear with me), I arrived at the following conclusions:

1) Water is the new oil; 2) Eco-villains are the new sinister-eye-patch-wearing-Dr.-Evil-type villains; and 3) As much as I’m a proud Canadian, CSIS spies really have no place in a Bond film.

But back to the first part — as I wrote in my last column for the Post (you can also read the full story below), it really does seem that as private water companies expand, especially into areas like the Global South, we’re going to be talking less about oil barons than water barons; instead of protesting against Texaco, Exxon-Mobil or Shell, activists will be banging at the doors of Suez, Vivendi (renamed Veolia) and Bechtel. To explore this a bit further, I interviewed Maude Barlow… and, well, you can read up on what she had to say at the bottom of this post. In short: She freaked me out almost as much as Al Gore did back in the day with his slides of drowning CGI polar bears.

Part of me wanted to drop everything, infiltrate Veolia headquarters and cut off their water supply to see how they like not being able to make tea or wash their hands after using the bathroom or flush the toilet or just freakin’ hydrate themselves to stay alive. But then Reality knocked on my cubicle and told me to just finish the damn article and go home to my cat.

Still, at the very least, it’s driven me to be even more of a (publicly controlled) tap-water advocate — and with that, I’m going to ask you readers to help me out a bit. In my house, I currently have a carbon filter on the top floor, a Brita jug and filter in the kitchen, a stainless steel container, and this new thing called Zero Water, which is basically like the Brita jug and filter except it comes with a little meter that lets you test how many parts per million of dissolved solids are in there before you take a swig — the company sent it to me and they claim their filter takes out four-times as much as most carbon filters (although I’m still waiting to hear back from them about whether the plastic jug is BPA-free). I can’t do any of those filters that attach directly to the faucet because my faucets aren’t really adaptable to that, unfortunately.

Anyway, I’m planning on doing a bit of a taste test so that I can finally figure out which filter system is a) the most environmentally friendly (as in: Can the filter be recycled? How often does it need to be changed? What kind of packaging does it come with?); and b) produces the best-tasting water. When I come to a conclusion, I’m going to present my research to anyone who insists that bottled water tastes better and challenge them to do a blind taste test (or, if they refuse, hurl a lot of petty insults at them until they feel guilty).

Here’s where I need your help, though: Have you tried out a lot of different tap-water filtering mechanisms? Is there one that you think stands out as a clear winner? Do you think tap water tastes just fine and we should quit complaining about it in the first place? Does is just need to sit for a while and get cold to lose its metallic taste? Does a stainless steel container help or hinder? Comment below!

I’ll update everyone on my taste-testing in the coming week or so.

In the mean time, here’s the Post story:

To most James Bond fans, the villain in Quantum of Solace may come as a surprise – this time, it isn’t some disfigured, revenge-obsessed arms dealer working out of an underground lair in Russia, but rather a plain-looking guy in khakis named Dominic Greene, head of a prominent environmental organization.

What classifies Greene as evil is the fact that he wants to privatize Bolivia’s water supply and subsequently drive up the country’s utility prices – hardly a plot to wipe out all of humankind, but it’s not exactly a nice thing to do, either.

But while he may seem a little benign, Greene nonetheless marks the first true eco-baddie the Bond franchise has seen and personifies a very pressing concern in real life: access to water.

“The thing that’s really frightening in Quantum of Solace is that it’s true,” said Mathieu Amalric, the actor who plays Greene, in an interview with the L.A. Times. “It’s not a big fantasy like in the Bond films of the 1980s.”

Indeed, the plot is loosely based on what happened in 1999, when the U.S.-based firm Bechtel signed a contract to privatize the sale and distribution of water in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Massive protests and a series of organized strikes ultimately returned control of this resource to the local government; however, Bechtel then attempted to sue for some US$50-million in lost profits.

A year before and across the ocean, local councils in South Africa began privatizing water, forcing citizens to pay into a meter system at every well. Those who couldn’t afford it ended up drinking from polluted streams and ponds instead and, by 2002, the country had suffered its worst cholera epidemic in history, one that infected more than 250,000 people.

“What the world needs is a quantum of water justice,” says Maude Barlow, a Canadian activist and senior United Nations advisor on water. “It really is an issue of life or death. It’s bigger than energy, even – oil destroys the environment and companies are stealing it and so on, but no one in the world has to die from a lack of oil. People are dying from lack of water … the crisis is here, and anybody who moves into desperate countries in the Global South to make money by denying water to people who can’t afford it will increasingly be seen as villains.”

Barlow believes that, as we become more environmentally aware, we’ll talk less about oil barons and corporations such as Exxon, Shell and Texaco, and instead focus on water barons and firms such as Suez, Vivendi, Nestlé, Bechtel and Thames Water of England.

In a recent interview on CBC Radio about the future of this industry, an executive with Thames referred to water as the petroleum of the 21st century.

“There will be world wars fought over this in the future,” he said. “Water is a limited, precious resource, so the growth market is always going to be there.”

Gerard Payen, who directed the overseas expansion for Suez, agrees, adding: “Water as a business is very effective when you look at the needs. We purify water and bring this water to your home. We provide a service, it has a cost and somebody has to pay for it.”

Well, yes. But the question is, does someone also have to profit from it?

In a year-long investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, it was shown that private water companies have now expanded into every region of the world, with more than 300 million people getting water from a commercial source. As an example of the immense growth rate of these companies: RWE, when it acquired Thames Water (it has since sold it), went from earning about US$25-million in 1990 to US$2.5-billion in 2002.

“You’re starting to see the sale of whole river systems now, too,” Barlow says. “In Canada, there’s tons of interest in exporting our water into the U.S., from northern Manitoba down to Texas, for example. And last month, the Montreal Economic Institute put out a study calling for the export of Quebec’s water to the U.S.”

Daniel Klymchuk, author of Water Exports: The 1% Solution, thinks plans like this aren’t necessarily a bad idea – in fact, he argues that a pipeline from Hudson Bay to the U.S. border exporting 1% of its water would earn the province US$1.33-billion a year and have no effect on the surrounding ecological system, as the flow would be diverted just before it enters the ocean.

“To assume no other province will sell water in the future is an unforgiveable error in judgment,” he writes. “If we do not act soon, we will ultimately price ourselves out of the water market.”

Of course, sitting somewhere in between Barlow and Klymchuk are those who believe in public-private partnerships, where a private corporation provides the infrastructure and technology but the utility itself is still owned by the local government.

It’s a complicated issue, and part of the problem is that the legalities behind water aren’t always clear.

“We don’t have a decent national law – the last water act was passed in 1970 – and we haven’t really mapped out our groundwater,” Barlow says. “We’ve stopped the privatization of water treatment plants across Canada but we haven’t banned the commercial export of water, and there are ongoing fights between communities around the Great Lakes and bottled-water companies like Nestlé.”

As a sign that it’s on top of such issues, Nestlé – which owns Perrier, Vittel, San Pellegrino and other international water brands – has released a video to address any concerns over its sources, how its water is treated, packaged and so on (the website also has a few pages devoted to sustainability and environmental responsibility). Meanwhile, the Coca-Cola company is holding a conference next month to look at the impact of privatization and whether it’s possible to strive for a “water-neutral footprint.”

“Still, the facts are pretty stark when you look at what they’ve done,” Barlow says. “Water barons are smart, persistent and ahead of the curve, so they know a crisis is looming and they’re basically trying to overcome this ‘bad guy’ reputation before it gets even worse.”