Clorox on Brita cartridge recycling: Not so easy

North American seller of Brita water filters responds to a grassroots online campaign to get the company to implement a system for recycling used carbon-filled plastic cartridges.

Drinking filtered water may save plastic bottles, but what happens when you need a new filter cartridge?

Last year, cleaning-product maker Clorox, together with bottle maker Nalgene, launched a campaign that struck an environmental chord with consumers.

In the Filter for Good campaign, the companies appealed to Americans to "take the pledge to reduce bottled-water waste." By investing in a reusable Nalgene bottle and drinking tap water filtered with Clorox's Brita products, they hinted, Americans could avoid littering the planet with 38 billion water bottles each year, thus saving the 1.5 million barrels of oil used to produce the bottles.

Considering the green spotlight that Clorox pointed at itself, environmental activist Beth Terry of Oakland, Calif., was surprised that she was not able to recycle used Brita filter cartridges. Clorox told her that the infrastructure did not exist in the United States for recycling the cartridges. But some Web surfing revealed that the company selling the filters in Europe, Brita, had built its own recycling infrastructure.

"We responded and were met by silence, so we started (a) campaign online" to get Clorox to implement a similar system, Terry said. This was in April, and since then, Take Back the Filter's petition has collected 6,267 signatures. It urges Clorox to:

  1. Redesign its Brita filter cartridges so that the plastic housing can be refilled, rather than discarded, each time the filter is changed.
  2. Provide a take-back program, such as the one that exists in Europe, so that used cartridges can be returned to the company for recycling.
  3. Create a system for the cartridges to be dismantled and for the components to be recycled or reused domestically rather than sent to domestic landfills, incinerated, or shipped overseas.

The day after she initiated the campaign, Terry was approached by Drew McGowan, a public-relations official for Brita, who said the company was looking into the question. Two months later, he tells CNET News.com that there are no still no ways to recycle the filters.

"Our filters are made with carbon. Any impurities that can be found in water will stick to the carbon, which becomes nonusable, which is why it has to be changed," McGowan said. "At this time, there is no way to recycle the carbon."

Although McGowan declined to disclose how many filters Brita sells per year, the company's 2007 annual report states that it has the largest market share of pour-through filter cartridges in the United States and Canada. Clorox is concerned about the cost of recycling.

Meanwhile, the Take Back the Filter campaign has started collecting used filters, anticipating the ultimate implementation of a recycling system.

"I think it's amazing that people are packaging up their filters and sending them to us," Terry said. "I think there's a section of society that definitely is willing to pay extra for recyclable filters."

So far, she has collected 119 filters from all over the country. She hopes it won't take too long for Clorox to start recycling.

"We're just people with regular jobs, caring for the environment. I want to make an impact," Terry said, sounding a bit worried about just how large the mounting pile of used filters will grow.

McGowan said: "We are regulated by outside organizations like the Water Quality Association and the National Sanitation Foundation. Even if we make a recyclable filter tomorrow, it would take one to two years before it could be implemented."

"But if it can be made physically and economically feasible, we are happy to do that," he continued. He said Clorox examines every possible way to recycle filters in North America.

The next item on Terry's wish list is that the U.S. would start recycling plastics domestically, rather than ship them to China, which she claims is the case in, for instance, San Francisco.

"In my activist blogging, I have visited recycling centers here like the Davis Street Transfer Center," she said. "All the plastic that gets collected is shipped to China, where they don't have the same type of worker safeguards. People are boiling down the plastics without wearing any protective gear."

"It makes people here feel good to recycle, but it is just moving the problem somewhere else and not fixing it. I think we should take care of the full life cycle of plastics here," Terry continued.

Here is a Skynews report on European plastic waste being recycled in China. Here is another video made by Northern California Recycling Association called Point of Return, about Oakland waste.

 

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