The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

July 30, 2008

Take Back The Climate

I’ve been asked to present the Take Back The Filter campaign (urging Clorox to take back and reuse/recycle used Brita water filter cartridges) as part of a panel at the California Resource Recovery Association’s (CRRA) annual conference next week. I am excited to have the opportunity to share the campaign with this audience, and when initially asked, wasn’t at all nervous about speaking: I’ve been talking about not much else for the past 3 months!

Not nervous, that is, until I found out that the theme of the conference is CARBONOPOLY: Climate Change Is Not A Game We Can Lose.

Oh dear. I know about zero waste. I know about the problems of plastic. I know why I don’t want Brita filter cartridges to continue to be landfilled or incinerated. But I hadn’t related the issue to climate change. In fact, I actually knew very little about global warming except that we’re all supposed to use less energy, buy fewer things that need to be shipped, and purchase locally to avoid fuel costs. I’ve been on the Low Carbon Diet with some friends for several weeks now. But still, I hadn’t ever thought about the connection between recycling and global warming. What the heck was I going to say to this group of industry professional?

Thanks to Ann Schneider of Sierra Club’s Zero Waste Group for referring me to a fantastic report called, “Stop Trashing The Climate,” a joint effort among the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Eco-Cycle, and Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance, which was published in June of this year. This report describes the multiple ways that waste affects our climate, some obvious, and some that may not immediately come to mind.

First, of course, there are the gases produced by landfills and incinerators. These gases are the direct effect of dumping or burning our waste. According to the report, “Landfills are the largest source of anthropogenic methane emissions in the U.S., and the impact of landfill emissions in the short term is grossly underestimated — methane is 72 times more potent than CO2 over a 20-year time frame.” But what about methane captured for energy? At the Hay Road landfill that I visited last January, we were told that the methane from the landfill is captured. But according to the findings of the Stop Trashing The Climate report, “The portion of methane captured over a landfill’s lifetime may be as low as 20% of total methane emitted.”

And incinerators emit not only CO2 but also nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere. In fact, the authors of the report recommend that “Existing incinerators should be retired, and no new incinerators or landfills should be constructed.” But what about filters on incinerators that trap the gases and other pollutants?

Here’s where we come to the main point of the report, the indirect results of landfilling and incineration that trapping the gases and other discharges from landfills and incinerators doesn’t address: “Wasting directly impacts climate change because it is directly linked to resource extraction, transportation, processing, and manufacturing.”

The more materials we send to the landfill or incinerator, the more materials must be extracted in order to replace them. And transported. And processed. And every step along the way uses more energy and produces more greenhouse gases than reusing or recycling the materials we already have.

In the case of Brita filters, that means more drilling for oil to make plastic and all the problems associated with that process. It also means transporting the oil, usually from places that are very far from where the oil will be used. And then processing the oil into new plastic pellets. And then shipping the new plastic. Then creating the new plastic filters. And then shipping the filters.

If Brita filters were designed to be reused instead of trashed, many, many greenhouse gas-generating steps in the process could be avoided. And even if, due to regulatory impediments related to the purity of plastic that comes into contact with drinking water, the filters themselves can’t be reused, Clorox’s development of a way to recycle the materials would still slow the need for more oil and creation of new plastics for other products.

It becomes clear to me that folks who criticize this campaign, or any other extended producer responsibility campaign, on the grounds that it takes energy to ship the used products back the manufacturer are not taking into consideration the environmental costs of creating brand new products to replace those that are trashed.

Of course, there are other major environmental costs to creating new plastic which I haven’t addressed in this post, since the focus here is on global warming. I discussed some of them (including harm to the marine environment) in my post, “What’s Wrong with Plastic Anyway?.” But the new (to me) information from the Stop Trashing The Climate report both heartens and saddens me. The link between waste and global warming re-energizes my commitment to source reduction and recycling and gives me an additional argument in support of the Take Back The Filter campaign. But the information also grieves me to think of one more way that we are trashing our world.

This post was included in the first Green Moms Blog Carnival at Organic Mania on August 4, 2008.

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The Magnificent Seven
15 years ago

I also really like the movie, Trashed.

Mother Earth
15 years ago

Truly awesome to see such a strong informed voice on this issue.

The Not Quite Crunchy Parent
15 years ago

Great, well researched post. The more folks understand the issues the more things are likely to change

Going Crunchy
15 years ago

Hooray for you, and good luck! I’ll be reading your blog to see how it turns out. Shan

15 years ago

Thanks so much for including the link to the Institute for Self Reliance. I am acquiring a real interest in stimulating local economies and rebuilding communities and I am always looking for new reading matter!!

15 years ago

I don’t use Britta because our local drinking water is pretty great but I think it’s easy to see the connection to climate change…for all the great reasons you listed.
It still amazes me that for all those years I just threw stuff away with no thought. There are some weeks where I have almost no trash.
Now…if I could just get my fire department to green things up…

Maisie Greenawalt
15 years ago

I applaud the detailed and commited look you are taking at plastic use. Have you made any inroads in eating a Low Carbon Diet? Check out our food calculator at

Beth Terry
15 years ago

Hi Nimic. I really wanted the information for myself to understand the link. I doubt I’ll be saying anything about it at the conference.

Clif — you are right! I don’t use a filter, and I don’t encourage anyone to use one who doesn’t need to.

Jenn — you are right! The reality is that the filters are here to stay for a long while.

See, you are both right. And that’s why I am looking at a two-pronged approach — urging the company to take responsibility for the waste it creates AND urging consumers not to buy things they don’t need.

Clif — I have decided that my life will have been meaningless if you don’t join Twitter.

Humuhumunukunukaapuaa — Yeah, and her towels and sheets always smelled like metal too. Hey, thanks for the fudge sauce!


15 years ago

Jennifer said…

“I was wondering what is the best way to store water for emergencies (that earthquake scared the crap outta me!).”

Google ‘how to store water for an emergency’

Some returns —

–many more.

jennconspiracy said…

“Chlorine tastes bad.”


Clif said…

“Since tap water in the U.S., especially in large urban areas, is about as safe as tap water can be, it seems worth the effort to cut down on filters unless a health hazard is present.”

For a long while now I have used Crystal Lite lemonade mix in tap water which 1) masks any off flavors in the water and 2) does not add to metal or plastic waste (except for the tiny container which holds each dose of concentrate).

For those with high concentrations of iron and/or sulfur in your well water — good luck!! Just ask Beth about her grandmother’s well water.

15 years ago

jenn, I think the amount of chlorine is very tiny…one drop for ten gallons of water or so. It’s supposed to be far less than can be tasted and kills harmful bacteria. If you let chlorinated water stand for a while the chlorine will evaporate from it (that’s why it’s not a good idea to put aquarium fish in tap water immediately). Put it in the fridge in an open container for a couple of hours and you’ll have cold water to drink without the chlorine.

Did you try calling your water department to ask if they might be putting a bit too much chlorine in? I’ve called mine here and they fell all over themselves getting back to me because they are very concerned that the quality of the water is made clear (pun intended) to the public.

Everyone can come up with a reason to use plastic. I think we want everyone to weigh their reasons to see if it offsets the damage plastic can do in the environment.

You’ve just said to give up on trying to change the habits of folks and rely instead on the good will of companies. But that means giving up on the grassroots effort that I think is what FPF is all about, isn’t it?

I think the Take Back the Filter plan is fine, especially ’cause Beth puts on that filter
outfit :) ,but that shouldn’t undermine the drive to try cutting down all uses of plastic that aren’t necessary. Since tap water in the U.S., especially in large urban areas, is about as safe as tap water can be, it seems worth the effort to cut down on filters unless a health hazard is present.

15 years ago

Thanks for the link to the Low Carbon Diet! I had not heard of this, so it was wonderful info.

Great post!

15 years ago

Chlorine tastes bad. Lots of people use them – the point is that it’s a really popular product. It’s easier to get the manufacturer to deal with the waste than to get the entire country to stop using filters (we’ll never get them to stop chlorinating/fluouridating our water – and isn’t it just disgusting that we have nothing but potable water in our houses for washing cars and watering gardens?)

15 years ago

What is the case for using a filter at all? Isn’t the best solution from the perspective of plastic to not use bottled water or filters?

Can Brita make the case that their product is needed? They will make claims for their product but how can the potential user assess the need.

Here where I live there is a detailed water report issued by the city water dept. each year going into great detail about the chemistry and safety of our tap water. I think they make a strong case and tap water is all I’ve ever used, but would ANY water department recommend filters? That would be admitting the water department is not up to the job.

I suppose there are labs that will test a sample sent to them to be compared against safety standards. That might cost something but compared to buying filters over a period of years it might be worth it.

15 years ago

In my opinion, if they asked you to speak on a specific topic, then they like your position on that topic. I don’t think there’s any reason to try to relate it to global warming at the last minute.

Everything is eventually connected to climate change somewhere up the line. Industry professionals know this. Just be yourself, and give your planned presentation.

For the record, I’ve got some slightly conflicting research on my site regarding the origin of plastic in the US. Specifically, SPID 1, 2, and 4. In the US, these plastics are made from natural gas in 70% of cases. As the price of oil increases, the percentage made from LNG is likely to increase.

As part of my research, I contacted a major bag manufacturer in addition to the normal internet research.

The end message is the same – the plastic is bad, and we need to stop using it. But I’m trying to get our stories straight, so we can argue more effectively for our cause.

Thank you for your time,


15 years ago

Hi Beth, Thank you so much for your dedicated work on the Brita filter issue. I was also wondering if it is “greener” to use Brita instead of bottled water (we used to drink it all day long). My family drinks about a gallon a day! I guess there are other options we should look at. Also, I was wondering what is the best way to store water for emergencies (that earthquake scared the crap outta me!). Thx! JenK

15 years ago

Your voice is such an informed, sincere voice – it is a clarion call. How appropriate that more will get to hear you face to face. I envy them.

I found this post a real aid in understanding this connection. As I high praise I will say, I could copy it and send it to my 84 year old mother and know she’d understand. She’s my guage. So, thanks.

Beth, I am happy to report that on Monday I sent off two filters to the Take Back the Filter address. I have decided against using Brita in my home. I have reverse osmosis vending machines a half mile away. I pay $.25 a gallon, but I feel it is cheaper than Brita and far less resource use / waste.

15 years ago

Wow. I’m so proud? inspired? awed? something. You are kicking ass and taking names with your TBTF campaign! You go, girl!

15 years ago

I agree with Rob- you'll be GREAT!

I looked at the Low Carbon Diet site – I used the calculator. I even went to PG&E to calculate my Kwh 4500 and Therms – 50-60/year – that will change once I get a gas heater and can stop using space heaters. I am usually around 160 Kwh per month, except when I run the space heater, and then it goes up to like 600-975 Kwh for 3-4 months.

I ranked a "9" on their scale – the garbage I put out is less than 2 gallons/week — I usually empty my kitchen trash about every 4 weeks since it is just non recyclable plastic. Everything else is composted or recycled, making my landfill use about 1 gallon/week (including cat poop).

So… other than getting the landlord to put in more insulation (over my bedroom, please!) – what else can I do to get to be a "10"?

Am seriously considering a solar oven after my brother helps with the solar dehydrator. ;)

15 years ago

Personally, I cannot think of a better mouthpiece than you beth. You know your topic and you know whats expected. So sally forth, fakeplastic fish- swim on