National drinking water scheme could cut plastic bottle use by millions

By: Clare Fischer
Date posted: 25 January 2018

People will be able to refill water bottles for free in tens of thousands of places in England in future following the announcement of a new national initiative by the water industry. The scheme could cut disposable plastic bottle use by tens of millions a year, and should lead to fewer bottles getting on to our shores and seas.

Refill Bottle_N
© Adrian Sheratt

Using bottled water in the UK is not only a waste of resources but creates huge amounts of waste and costs consumers millions of pounds every year.

Dr Sue Kinsey,
MCS Senior Pollution Policy Officer

Plastic water bottles litter UK beaches in their thousands. During last September’s MCS Great British Beach Clean, volunteer beach cleaners picked up on average more than 10 bottles per every 100m they cleaned.

The scheme, in which water companies have joined forces with the Refill campaign, will create a national network of high street retailers, coffee shops, businesses and local authorities who will offer new refill stations for the public to top-up their water bottles for free in every major city and town in England by 2021.

A smart phone app will help people find out where the nearest refill point is, and there will be special signs in shop windows.

As well as being able to get drinking water from shops, cafes and businesses, some water companies are looking at installing new public drinking fountains and restoring some historical ones which have fallen into disuse.

The first business to join the national drinking water scheme is Whitbread plc, which has pledged to offer free drinking water for customers and passers-by in each of its 3000 Costa Coffee and Premier Inn locations from March 2018.

“This is great news and another step forward in reducing the amount of plastics in our seas and on our beaches. Using bottled water in the UK is not only a waste of resources but creates huge amounts of waste and costs consumers millions of pounds every year. By using a refillable water bottle not only are we helping the environment we are also saving money,” says Dr Sue Kinsey, Senior Pollution Policy Officer.

Launching the new scheme, Water UK Chief Executive Michael Roberts said: “As an industry with a strong focus on the environment we are passionate about tackling the problems caused by plastic bottles, which clog up rivers and drains, and pollute our seas.

“By refilling water bottles, we can all help turn this harmful tide of plastic waste. This country has some of the best drinking water in the world and we want everyone to benefit from it. This scheme will do that by making it easier for people to refill their bottles wherever they work, rest, shop or play.”

Single-use plastic bottles are expensive to produce, use up valuable natural resources to make and transport, and create mountains of waste once they’ve been used and discarded. So far, recycling does not appear to be adequately dealing with the problem, as it’s estimated that only around half of the 38.5 million plastic bottles used in the UK every day are recycled, with around 16 million ending up in landfill, being burnt, or entering the environment and waterways.

The Refill campaign now has over 1600 refill stations across the UK. Some water companies are currently taking part in four local Refill schemes in England to provide free drinking water; Anglian Water in Norwich; Northumbrian Water in Durham; South West Water in Cornwall; and Bristol Water.

The new partnership between the water industry and Refill will see all water companies in England support the massive expansion of the scheme over the next two years.

The Refill Bristol scheme which launched in September 2015 now has more than 200 refill points across the city centre. Refill Bristol has estimated that if every Bristolian refilled a bottle once a week instead of buying a single-use plastic bottle, the city would reduce its plastic bottle consumption by 22.3 million a year. If replicated around the country, it could lead to a reduction in plastic bottle use in the hundreds of millions.

The first stage in delivering the nationwide scheme will be for water companies and Refill to develop local action plans by September 2018, setting out steps they will take – working with local partners – to drive up access to drinking water locally. This will include the number of refill stations to be available. Plans will cover specific initiatives tailored to local circumstances, which may also include projects like new outdoor drinking fountains and re-usable bottles.

The aim is to have country-wide coverage by 2021.

MCS is currently calling on UK governments to put a charge on single-use plastic throwaway items and demanding that big fast food chains stop giving out millions of plastic cups, stirrers, straws and cutlery but instead replace them with reusable or fully compostable alternatives.

Actions you can take

  1. Help us stop the plastic tide
  2. Download the Great British Beach Clean Report 2017

Did you know?…

Plastic has been found in the stomachs of almost all marine species including fish, birds, whales, dolphins, seals and turtles

Over time, one plastic bottle bobbing along in the ocean can break down in to hundreds of tiny plastic pieces

On UK beaches levels of litter have doubled in the past 20 years