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One Person Really Can Make a Difference

RP Siegel | Wednesday March 31st, 2010 | 7 Comments

Blog, blog, action. It all started with a blog that Beth Terry of Oakland, Calif., read on rodale.com about the monstrous plastic garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean. She was particularly struck by a photo of an albatross that had essentially been shrink-wrapped. It inspired her to start cleaning up her act, when it came to plastic waste. And she started a blog, fakeplasticfish.com and wrote about her plastic concerns. As she set about finding homes for all of the plastic items in her life that had served their useful purpose, she discovered that when it came to Brita plastic water filters, there was no room at the inn. This was particularly troubling because not only was this a lot of wasted plastic but due to the way that the filters extract toxic chemicals from the water, they became concentrated sources of toxins by the time they were spent.

People started writing back to her and when she began to analyze the search terms that people used to find her blog (she was, after all, an accountant by day) she realized that there were lots of other people seeking an answer to the Brita problem.  Besides, Brita was representing itself as a green company and was already taking back filters in Europe! She’d seen the effectiveness of a website set up by two bloggers from El Cerrito, Calif., who managed to discourage AOL from sending out the millions of CDs that had been part of a carpet-bombing style marketing campaign, back in the bubbly days.  So she put out a call to action which led, in January of 2008, to the formation of the Take Back the Filter Campaign

I first heard about Terry last week when I was talking with Heidi Sanborn of CPSC about the new stewardship law just passed in Maine. I happened to mention that I wish there was something I could do with those darn Brita filters. So I contacted her to hear more about her story. “I didn’t have any idea what I was doing,” she said. “I just started sending emails to anyone I could think of. Co-op America responded, very excited which really encouraged me.” A year later she had collected 611 cartridges and a number of heavy duty endorsements from groups including Green America, California Product Stewardship Council, Californians Against Waste, Sierra Club and more, plus 16,225 signatures on her petition to Clorox (Brita’s parent company), and a whole lot of media attention.

“I never saw Brita as the enemy,” she said. “My goal was to show them how many of their customers wanted this.” Ten months after that, an announcement came out that Clorox had reached an agreement with Preserve, a company with a environmentally friendly process for recycling #5 plastics, otherwise known as polypropylene, through its Gimme 5 recycling and reuse program. According to the press release, the activated carbon interior of the filters “will be regenerated for alternative use or converted into energy.”

Whole Foods agreed to provide  collection points for the filters at any of their nationwide locations. The filters can be dropped off at Whole Foods or simply mailed to Preserve.

Beth’s website still exists. On it she tells the story of what happened and asks people to stop sending her filters. She still blogs on fakeplasticfish.com, too, where she plots out her monthly plastic waste in ounces and items, and she still claims to be learning to live plastic free (since 2007). She has her plastic waste level down to about two pounds a year, down from 3.7 pounds the year before and considerably better than the 88-120 pounds that the typical American family goes through. She says that when you make changes in your personal life, then you have an investment in that issue.

She’s also working on a book about the subject. By now, she’s become a bit jaded about recycling as the “answer.”

“I’ve gone way beyond recycling and now focus more on reducing my consumption of plastic in the first place,” she says.

It’s a great testimonial to the power of blogging, the sensitivity of large corporations to publicity and public opinion and the fact that one individual truly can make a difference.

For more information visit the Plastic Pollution Coalition website.

RP Siegel is the author of Vapor Trails.


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  • http://blog.babyganics.com/ Robert Jenkins

    IMHO, i believe companies should be investing more in greener, biodegradable plastic materials for their products. These plastic waste items are not only fugly, they kill wildlife as well…

  • http://www.pebpond.com/ Karen

    So-called 'biodegradable' plastics are not the answer. REFUSAL and REDUCTION are the answers. The amount of useless plastic packaging and 'disposable' plastic products that has risen in such a short period, really only about 40 years, is staggering. I was speaking to a woman who went plastic-free 40 years ago and she said it was really easy because products were not overpackaged and plastic was not pushed at you from every angle. 'Today,' she said 'it's impossible. I tried, but I couldn't go one day. Forty years ago, I went for 5 years with hardly any effort at all.' And no one really seems to question it. From a consumer standpoint, things really aren't that different than they were 40 years ago. We still buy nuts and bolts at the hardware store but why is it that today, those 6 nuts and 6 bolts have to be encased in a plastic box that then must be put into a plastic bag? Why can't we simply scoop up a few and put them in a paper bag? Forty years ago, there were no plastic bags for groceries. Granted, the bags were paper which has its own environmental issues; however, where is it written that it is your constitutional (or whatever) right to get a free bag – of any kind – with your groceries? Plastic has its uses, sure, but it's not as a bag or a huge, thick, un-openable wrapper around a tiny electronic device or otherwise useless, frivolous, polluting packaging! It's not that hard manufacturers and retailers, honest!!

    • http://blog.babyganics.com/ Robert Jenkins

      I agree with you 100 percent on the reduction of plastic use as the real answer to the problem. But for instances when use of plastics are really necessary (medical syringes, plastic bags for use in garbage and sanitation purposes, biodegradable plastics derived from plant materials is more sustainable and eco-friendly than conventional petroplastics.

      • http://www.pebpond.com/ Karen

        Possibly, although the biodegradability of many 'biodegradable plastics' is suspect. This seems to be a largely unregulated area with a decidedly murky definition of 'biodegradable'. I think when the general public hears a plastic bag (or whatever) is 'biodegradable', they expect they can pop it into their compost or that if it escapes into the wild, it's not a big deal because it will just break down. Unfortunately, that isn't the case. Most of these plastics will only biodegrade under specific conditions. There is a good backgrounder on this from the Recycling Council of British Columbia which discusses questionable environmental claims and lack of third party verification: http://rcbc.bc.ca/education/rcbc-publications

  • http://www.retrohousewifegoesgreen.com/ Lisa

    Beth is amazing! She is in my head every time I go shopping. Sometimes I curse her for making me so aware that I skip on many items I REALLY wanted but it's always in good spirits as I know she has made me a better person and is making the planet a better place! Kudos Beth!

  • brookefarrell

    Great job Beth! Really love people who get involved and make things happen! What a great example you are!

    This is such a huge problem we have to tackle it from all sides. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, ReTHINK and redesign. Thanks for the great resource in your note re: RCBC's info on biodegradable plastics. While these well intentioned efforts may not be the final or best possible solution, but it's great to see that companies and people are starting to try to rethink and redesign instead of rely solely on consumers to recycle.
    http://www.twitter.com/brookebf

  • brookefarrell

    Great job Beth! Really love people who get involved and make things happen! What a great example you are!

    This is such a huge problem we have to tackle it from all sides. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, ReTHINK and redesign. Thanks for the great resource in your note re: RCBC's info on biodegradable plastics. While these well intentioned efforts may not be the final or best possible solution, but it's great to see that companies and people are starting to try to rethink and redesign instead of rely solely on consumers to recycle.
    http://www.twitter.com/brookebf

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