National Refill Campaign Aims to End Plastic Waste in the UK 

Article published on Feb. 13, 2018
Article published on Feb. 13, 2018

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Starting spring 2018, free water refill stations and public fountains will be rolled out in major UK cities. The scheme, aimed at reducing the amount of plastic waste, was initiated by Water UK and has already attracted participating cafes, restaurants and hotels. 

In an effort to reduce the alarming rate of plastic waste, industry body Water UK has initiated a long-term project to place free water refill points in major UK cities by 2021. These refill points should be in public areas, but the company who owns Costa Coffee and Premier Inn has already expressed interest in setting up fountains in its branches starting this spring. Other major restaurants, retailers and cafes are expected to follow their example in what could be one of the largest waste prevention initiatives in recent years.

According to the first estimates, this project would reduce the use of plastic bottles by tens of millions annually, which would make a significant contribution to the environment.  At present, the British use almost 40 million plastic bottles every day, but in spite of awareness campaigns and the existence of plastic recycling bins, only half of them get recycled. We buy a whopping 1 million bottles every minute and only 7% of them are turned into new bottles. As for the rest, they end up in the public landfill at best; at worst, they are disposed of incorrectly, burnt, or they find their way into the oceans, damaging the ecosystem. And that is not the only problem. Large scale production of water bottles puts a strain on the economy because they’re some of the most expensive disposable objects to manufacture and distribute. Put simply, plastic waste is one of the lowkey factors behind climate change.

People have become used to spending their change on buying an ice-cold water bottle to stay hydrated on a hot summer day, but this is only because they don’t have other options. This would change, says Michael Roberts, CEO of Water UK, if people had free stations around the city to refill their water bottles. The water quality in the UK is one of the best in Europe, so people would have no reason to be worried about their health.

This is not the first refill project to take place in the UK. The Refill campaign introduced more than 1,500 free water refill stations across the United Kingdom, especially in Norwich, Durham, Cornwall and Bristol.

Whitbread, the owner of Costa Coffee and Premier Inn, said they were excited to include their 3000 locations in the scheme starting March and expects enthusiasm from the public as well. These refill stations would be advertised by special shop window signs or the Brits can opt to install an app on their phones telling them where the nearest refill station is. Of course, in order for this scheme to reach its full potential and truly make a difference, several efforts need to be made. On the one hand, awareness campaigns need to continue. People should know that choosing to purchase a £1 water bottle instead of refilling could indirectly harm the environment and the ocean ecosystem. However, taking into account the success of the previous Refill campaign, this should not be a major problem. Commercial involvement is not a concern either, as major retailers and hospitality businesses are some of the first to join environmental schemes. They were some of the first to include selective recycling bins, Miltek waste compactors and waste tracking tools on premises and hospitality establishments are already legally obliged to offer free water on request. On the other hand, the Government needs to work together with retailers to set up refill stations in as many public areas as possible.

In light of recent policies, cutting back on plastic waste by 2021 doesn’t seem like a far-fetched goal, because the UK is already making progress to this end: plastic microbeads in cosmetic product were banned last year, manufacturers are trying to replace plastic cotton buds and straws with biodegradable alternatives, DEFRA is considering the implementation of a deposit return scheme for people who buy plastic bottles.

Greenpeace has praised the initiative of Water UK, stating that this one of those initiatives that could mobilise the entire population and trigger a change in mentality. Over the course of the following years, all 15 water companies in the UK are expected to be involved in this scheme and mayor Sadiq Khan has already expressed plans to inaugurate 20 new water fountains in London.