Schhh . . . how the bottle protest nearly fell flat

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a defining moment in British green history, the day Friends of the Earth UK was born as a campaigning organisation. And now it turns out to have been a bit of a con.

Twenty-three years ago this month the FoE dumped 2,000 empty fizzy drink bottles on the doorstep of Cadbury Schweppes' London headquarters to protest against an increasingly throwaway society.

The drinks company had stopped demanding repayable deposits for bottles. The environmental group's photogenic stunt won headlines and press photographs worldwide. It claimed to be returning perfectly reusable bottles that had been thrown into rubbish bins and gutters and on to pavements.

Not true - the FoE had bought several hundred over the counter. The secret is exposed by Pete Wilkinson in a 'warts and all' biography published at the weekend. In Warrior: one man's environmental crusade, the pioneering green crusader tells how he was assigned to collect 2,000 empties from the streets of London. With the protest date looming, Graham Searle, founder director, decided to top up the collection by purchasing full bottles which were emptied into plastic containers. 'The demonstration went ahead successfully. We drank Schweppes for months afterwards and kept the secret to ourselves.'

Mr Wilkinson went on to work as a top Greenpeace environmental campaigner in the 1980s before becoming a consultant. Yesterday he said: 'Those were seat of the pants, close to the wire days - we were a bunch who were crusading rather than trying to carve out a career . . . Nowadays it's just as respectable to work for Greenpeace as it is for ICI.'

Charles Secrett, FoE director, said: 'We wouldn't dream of doing such a thing now. Lucky them, back in the early days when it was all fresh and new. It's now a very serious business and the stakes are much higher.'

Mr Searle, now a consultant for a hazardous waste disposal company, said: 'I had to buy a few bottles of gin to accompany all the tonic. It was fun, but there was a lot of very effective campaigning work done too.'