For the past fifteen months, Clorox has been trying to remake itself as a green company. First, the giant Oakland manufacturer purchased Burt's Bees, a small, eco-friendly company that makes lip balm and personal hygiene products. Then, Clorox partnered with the Sierra Club to introduce a full line of environmentally conscious cleansers, known as Green Works. Suddenly the company best known for introducing bleach to the consumer market more than a century ago had made a remarkable turnaround — that is, until it ran into an Oakland blogger.
Last spring, Beth Terry publicly revealed a flaw in Clorox's new corporate image. The company wasn't as green as it seemed. For Terry, it was an unlikely discovery. The North Oakland accountant had never thought of herself as an environmental activist. But in 2007, her life changed after reading about the giant sea of plastic that swirls around the northern Pacific Ocean. The human-made plastic stew, estimated to be anywhere from the size of Texas to the size of Africa, prompted Terry to launch a blog, FakePlasticFish.com, and begin a campaign to severely limit her personal use of plastic.
Terry quickly learned that plastic water bottles are among the leading contributors to plastic pollution. Millions of them end up in the ocean and get carried by currents to the North Pacific Pyre, where they swirl in a massive circle, slowly photo-degrading into smaller plastic parts that birds sometimes mistake for food. "I thought to myself that my lifestyle is affecting animals in the middle of nowhere," she said.
Terry didn't have to stop buying water bottles, because she had been using Brita filters for years. But after launching her blog and doing some research, she soon realized that the plastic-encased filters aren't recycled, and that when consumers replace their old ones after a few months of use, they end up in landfills.
Terry also learned that in the United States and Canada, Brita is owned by Clorox, and that her hometown company had no recycling plan in place. But in Europe, where Brita is still owned by the Brita company, the plastic filters are recycled routinely, particularly in Germany and France. In researching Clorox, she learned about the company's eco-transformation, its relationship with the Sierra Club, and a campaign Clorox began a little more than a year ago, urging consumers to switch from plastic water bottles to Brita filters because they're better for the environment.
When Terry contacted Clorox to urge it to develop a recycling plan, she was told it wasn't feasible. The casings of Brita filters are made of No. 5 plastics — polypropylene — which is recyclable, but usually not through municipal curbside recycling programs. Undeterred, Terry decided to launch an online environmental campaign in April 2008 to change the company's mind. Quickly, an Internet community emerged and created TakeBacktheFilter.org. They decided to pressure Clorox and the Sierra Club in light of the green partnership the two created in 2007. "We just thought that recycling was the next step, and that they needed to take it," Terry said.
TakeBacktheFilter.org went viral and eventually attracted more than 16,000 signatures on an online petition. Terry also told Brita users to send their old filters to her, and she ended up storing more than six hundred under her dining room table. "I can tell you from collecting them that they get nasty," she said. Terry and her colleagues had planned to use the filters in a demonstration outside Clorox headquarters.
But then late last year, her efforts paid off. Clorox announced that it had created a partnership with Preserve, a company that downcycles No. 5 plastics into toothbrushes and other personal care products. Preserve had already teamed up with Whole Foods to begin accepting No. 5s at supermarkets as part of its "GIMME 5" recycling campaign. Then late last month, Whole Foods began taking Brita filters at their supermarkets in fourteen states, including California. Terry deposited her 611 filters at the Whole Foods in Oakland near Lake Merritt.
Despite her success, Clorox officials aren't ready to give Terry credit. Company spokesman Drew McGowan praised her for being a "huge fan of Britas," but maintained that by the time she launched her online campaign, Clorox was already actively searching for ways to recycle the plastic filters. "We've been looking for the past few years for sustainability in all of our business," he said. However, last October, McGowan appeared to sing a different tune. The New York Times quoted him at the time, saying that the costs of a nationwide filter recycling program would be "absolutely astronomical."
As for Terry, it's not about taking credit; it's about making a difference. She's also not a Brita customer anymore. Not long ago, she realized that Oakland's tap water, produced by the East Bay Municipal Utility District, comes from the high Sierra and is among the purest anywhere. In fact, here in the East Bay, Brita filters, or any other water filtration system (or plastic water bottles and water coolers, for that matter), are a waste of money and environmental resources for EBMUD customers — unless your home, apartment, or business has old lead pipes.