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Preventing plastic, one refilled bottle at a time

Every week we're told what we can do to help save the planet - walk more, eat less meat, cycle more, recycle more. The key thing is, these are things we can do with just small adjustments in our lives.

January 2018

I take my (very colourful) water bottle everywhere I go, and I usually know of easy places to refill it in locations I go to often. But sometimes I haven’t found a place - usually when I am travelling and it seems impossible to find a drinking water dispenser. In a survey conducted by Yougov, commissioned by the Marine Conservation Society, over half of all respondents said they would be likely to make use of water refill stations at shopping centres (54%) and outdoor recreation spaces (53%), closely followed by train and bus stations (48%), supermarkets (47%), cafes/restaurants (46%) and service stations (43%) if they were available. So the announcement this week by Water UK to support the Refill App, together with the Mayor of London’s commitment to install new refill stations across the city are welcome, and can help increase access.

What does it mean for us? Well, it is estimated that in the UK we spent £1.9 billion on bottled water (2015 data). So first of all - it means better access to free, safe drinking water, something which wherever we live should be a right and not a privilege. In July 2010 the UN General assembly declared that safe and clean drinking water and sanitation is a human right essential for the full enjoyment of life. While in the UK we often don’t think about it, we live in a privileged part of the world. So we should be making use of access to this amazing resource and, what's more, it's got a low carbon footprint. Compare it to bottled water: it takes 162g of oil to produce a single one litre water bottle, equivalent to 100g of CO2 being released and a whopping seven litres of water to make it - never mind the air-miles to factor in, or that the water may have been extracted from areas already short of water for local domestic use. Single use water bottles are adding to the issue of marine litter. In Marine Conservation Society surveys in September 2017 across the UK, more than 10 bottles on average were found for every 100m of beach cleaned. While single use water bottles don’t account for all of these, any steps to reduce bottles getting into circulation should help to combat marine litter.

Yet despite all of these obvious facts, we use billions of single use water bottles in the UK alone (an estimated 7.7 billion) and it is seen as a growing industry, expanding 25% from 2010-2015. So why do we do it? Well, talking to friends, it’s a mix of things - convenience, it's seen as healthy, it's sold as something to look good and appear healthy with, and they feel embarrassed to ask for a refill (which aligns with the a Keep Britain Tidy poll which found 71% feeling awkward asking a venue for tap water if they weren’t a customer). The same friends who think that drinking water is about image, also comment about how cool my bottle is, and that it is an individual style statement. In the last year or so, I have started seeing more people with their own style - not just my friends who have heard it all from me, but people out and about asking for water with bottles that range from those which are simply functional to those which make a bit of statement in someway. Initiatives such as the Refill App, and more water fountains, mean that we can all see clearly where to ask and get free water. As such, I reckon I will be seeing a lot more people with bottles being asked for them to be refilled. It's good for the planet, good for their wallets, and, I think their refillable bottles make the nicest statement about the success of such schemes.

It's an encouraging sign of the times, too, to see action to turn the tide on plastic called for on network TV, and vocally supported by government and business. As Environment Minister, Thérèse Coffey said "The world has woken up to the consequences of a disposable society... it is excellent to see the water industry leading by example with their new refill scheme which has already secured the backing of Costa Coffee and Premier Inn". We should see this as one small but genuine step towards an overall end to single-use throwaway items that our planet desparately needs.

Dr Laura Foster, Head of Clean Seas, Marine Conservation Society

Follow MCS on Twitter at @MCSUK

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.