Is embarrassment over tap water contributing to plastic bottle waste?

While community water refill schemes may offer a solution to reducing plastic waste, research has suggested that Brits are too afraid to ask for a refill.

Many comedians have remarked with humour upon the British peoples’ trademark awkwardness, and we are often the first to point it out. But beyond a loveable quirk showcased by the likes of Hugh Grant in nineties rom-coms, could it be this ‘embarrassment’ that is holding us back from taking simple steps to combat one of our environment’s most pressing issues?

Environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy (KBT) along with water filter manufacturer BRITA UK today (11 May) released research revealing the extent to which our plastic bottle waste problem can be attributed to our own awkwardness.

According to the research, carried out through YouGov, 71 per cent of survey participants are uncomfortable asking for free tap water refills when out and about, without also buying something else first. And 37 per cent feel awkward asking for it in a reusable bottle, even when making a purchase.

In addition, only a quarter of survey participants knew their rights when it came to asking for free tap water. The law in England and Wales provides that businesses licensed to sell food and/or drinks must offer free drinking water on request, although they may charge for the use of a glass.

Despite this, 73 per cent said they would like greater availability of tap water, with 57 per cent agreeing that businesses serving food and/or drinks should be required to provide free drinking water to the public, regardless of whether they are customers or not. And two-thirds of people wouldn’t buy plastic bottles if tap water is available.

7.7 billion bottles per year

Britons use 7.7 billion single use plastic bottles each year. The average UK household uses 480 bottles, nearly half of which are not recycled, according to research from WRAP’s Recycle Now programme.

The national recycling campaign warns that the number of plastic bottles not being recycled could reach 29 billion by 2020, increasing litter and damage to our marine environment many-fold.

KBT Chief Executive Allison Ogden-Newton says that making drinking water more readily available would help both the public’s health and the state of its environment. “This report demonstrates that the British public want greater access to tap water when out and about,” she said. “Topping-up in a glass or refillable bottle would encourage us to stay healthy while helping to reduce littering in our streets, parks and beaches, which is all good.”  

More community refill schemes

Last month in Bristol, a new community water fountain was opened in Queens Square, supported by Bristol City Council, Bristol Waste and the Refill Project, promoting the use of reusable bottles.

This is one example of efforts to improve public access to free drinking water and reduce plastic bottle waste, an approach encouraged by the London Assembly Environment Committee in its ‘Bottled Water’ report, released on 13 April. However, KBT’s survey suggests that many are unlikely to use public water fountains, with only seven per cent of participants reporting that they drink from fountains or public taps when not at home, and 55 per cent expressing concerns about the cleanliness of public drinking fountains.

It also appears that people are less willing to put in the effort to reduce plastic bottle use, with only 33 per cent of participants willing to go the extra mile to find alternatives to plastic bottles and 64 per cent admitting they rarely or never carry a reusable bottle. Although 59 per cent said they would be more likely to carry reusable bottles if tap water was more freely available.

To turn the tide on the blight of plastic bottle waste, KBT recommends an increase in the availability of community water schemes such as those seen in Bristol and London and an update to legislation providing greater access to free drinking water.

Other recommendations include: increasing awareness about public rights to drinking water, encouraging the hospitality industry to provide free drinking water to customers and non-customers, and working with transport providers to improve access to free drinking water.

Is embarrassment contributing to plastic bottle waste?
Around 7.7 billion single use plastic bottles are used in the UK every year
Sarah Taylor, Managing Director of BRITA UK, said: “Staying hydrated on the go is absolutely vital for our health, especially at this time of year, but it can be really difficult to find somewhere to fill up for free or get a glass of water. Unfortunately too often that means buying another plastic bottle that will then be thrown away, causing long-term damage to the marine environment and increasing the amount of litter in our public spaces.

“It’s great to see that many cafes, shops and other businesses already proactively offer free drinking water and encourage customers or non-customers to fill up, but we need more businesses to follow in their footsteps, greater availability of public drinking fountains, and to boost people’s understanding of their water rights.”

The report can be read on Keep Britain Tidy’s website

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