Toxic Message in a Bottle

BY ON February 4, 2013

Water bottles with rolled up messages on a beach

Rosa Parks, the iconic civil rights activist who was born a hundred years ago today, remains a potent symbol of the extraordinary influence one ‘ordinary’ individual can have by taking a stand — or, in her case, remaining seated. When Parks defied the bus driver who ordered her to give up her seat to a white man on that Montgomery, Alabama bus back in 1955, she committed this act of civil disobedience with grace and dignity.

Parks proved that one person really can make a difference. She also demonstrated that sometimes, a polite and peaceful protest can be the most effective way to challenge the status quo, whether you’re on a mission to foster a seismic cultural shift, or create more modest ripples of change.

Consider the recent email exchange that took place between blogger Beth Terry, founder of My Plastic Free Life, and Virgin visionary, Sir Richard Branson.

Dead sea bird with a belly full of plastic.

Dead sea bird with a belly full of plastic.

Terry became obsessed with the way plastic permeates our lives and degrades our environment after she saw a graphic photo of a dead bird whose stomach was filled with a toxic hodgepodge of plastic debris it had mistaken for food. That image launched her on a mission to reduce plastic in her own life and encourage other people to do the same, a process she describes with warmth and wit in her 2012 book, Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too.

With a book to promote and increasingly in demand as a speaker, Terry found herself having to fly regularly. And while the airline industry has not, historically, been a hotbed of ecological innovation, Branson has made it a priority to lighten his airlines’ environmental impact as much as possible.

So it seemed only natural for Terry to select Virgin as her preferred airline, which she calls, “my little womb in the sky.” But, although Virgin has found many ways to reduce its carbon footprint, she was disappointed to notice that the airline still distributes needlessly wasteful small bottles of water on its flights. Instead of shrugging this off, or simply stewing about it, Terry took the seemingly quixotic tack of posting an open letter to Branson and Virgin America’s CEO, David Cush, on her website.

Terry begins by applauding the many things Virgin is doing right, then she issues this challenge to Branson and his team:

“Virgin America is a leader in the airline industry. I’m wondering, in addition to worrying about small things like plastic bottles, what could be done to minimize the impact of all the plastic used inside airplanes? From floor to ceiling, the plane is one big plastic box. What about developing a more sustainable material? Plastic from plant waste? Plastic from recycled materials? I realize that plastics make planes lightweight, and that reducing the weight reduces the CO2 emissions. But plastics also contain toxic chemicals that can leach out and offgas. And the production of plastic from fossil fuels is a dirty business.” ~ Beth Terry, excerpt from Dear Virgin America, I Love You, But Not Your Plastic Bottles

Virgin America planes

Four days later, Terry received this reply from Branson (this is an excerpt):

“Dear Beth,

Thank you very much for your post! I agree with your thoughts on how we must leave ‘no stone un-turned’ in terms of looking for ways to reduce waste. It’s appreciated when someone takes the time to raise an important issue such as this that impacts the airlines…As a new airline that launched in 2007, I know Virgin America has worked hard to reinvent many aspects of the typical domestic flying experience for the better, including, as you note, a focus on trying to operate as responsibly as possible in a carbon-intensive industry…Virgin America’s goal is to focus energies on the larger impacts of our footprint. But as you rightly note, even small changes add up. In that vein, the company along with its teammate-led Green Team is always looking at ways to improve the airline’s carbon footprint and I’ve passed along your post to them.

It would be great to sit down with you and work out how all three of the Virgin airlines can reduce plastic usage further. We’ve achieved this in our hotels, so I am optimistic we can make similar progress in the skies and we find that when Virgin achieves something like this all the other airlines in time will follow. So your letter could start a real transformation in the skies…”

Also, loved the description of the Virgin America planes as “my little womb in the sky.” Delightful!



Richard Branson. Founder of Virgin Group

Now, Beth Terry is looking forward to that meeting and compiling her wish list of suggestions for Virgin’s Green Team. It’s a heady development for a humble blogger. Cheers to Terry for her dogged optimism in reaching out to a quintessential titan of industry who might seem to be out of her reach, and cheers to Richard Branson for having the good sense to heed her two cents.


TOPICS: Activism, Climate Change, Indoor Air Pollution, Pollution, Social Justice, Toxics