Study finds 45 per cent fall in purchases of bottled water on the go

The consumption of bottled water has fallen from 58 per cent to 30 per cent amongst people working remotely, under furlough or made redundant during lockdown, according to a new study released by YouGov today (30 July).

With 61 per cent of those in employment pre-lockdown expecting to continue remote working after the pandemic, at least part-time, the study, commissioned by BRITA UK, states that positive behaviours picked up at home could be ‘the cultural shift needed to help tackle plastic pollution, reduce litter and protect marine life’.

An image of plastic bottles of waterYouGov’s survey, commissioned by BRITA UK, has revealed that there has been a 45 per cent decrease in the number of people overall buying bottled water on-the-go. Prior to lockdown, the most common point of purchasing bottled water was on-the-go or at work.

In 2018, BRITA UK and its partner Keep Britain Tidy found convenience was a significant driver in the low uptake of refillable bottles, with travelling and meal deals being significant factors in the purchase of bottled water. According to YouGov’s report, this suggests that continued home working could have a positive impact on the fight against plastic pollution.

Consumers have been switching from disposable bottles to tap or filtered water, with half of those choosing to do so citing reasons including not going to work or the supermarket as often. 22 per cent of participants expected to use fewer disposable plastic bottles on-the-go, and almost a third (31 per cent) now intending to carry a reusable bottle, and the study suggests that these positive habits could stick after the crisis ends.

Before the pandemic, 42 per cent of people purchased bottled water for consumption at home despite having easy access to tap or filtered water; that fell to 32 per cent during lockdown. These findings have prompted calls for businesses and government to support increased flexibility in working after the pandemic, in the hopes that Britons will continue to cultivate more sustainable habits.

“Cutting down on single-use plastics is as important as ever, whether that is using fewer disposable coffee cups or avoiding throwaway water bottles,” said Mary Creagh, former Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), which ran a major inquiry into plastic bottle usage in 2017.

Creagh continued: “This research shows that remote working, and daily walks have helped people make the switch to environmentally-friendly practices which is encouraging. It’s important that businesses and the government continue to support those who choose to work from home.”

Additionally, the study highlights a new willingness to accept drastic change in everyday life where required. Almost seven in ten people say that they were ‘willing to alter their behaviour to manage a global crisis or existential threat’, and 71 per cent now believe people should be more willing to change their behaviour if necessary, mirroring the public’s adherence to lockdown rules when the coronavirus risk became evident.

According to the study, changing the way environmental threats such as plastic pollution or climate change are talked about could have a big impact, and help the UK meet the government’s Net Zero targets and achieve a green recovery.

‘Preserve and build’ on lockdown changes

Commenting on the report, Richard McIlwain, Deputy Chief Executive of Keep Britain Tidy said: “Since Blue Planet II aired, we are perhaps more aware of the damage we’re doing to the planet, but there is a massive gap between awareness and changing behaviour. However, these findings clearly show how during lockdown, when many people had a little more time to pause and take stock, they were able to adopt simple but effective pro-environmental behaviours. We really need to make sure that in the dash to restart the economy, we don’t lose these changes but preserve and build on them.”

Despite fears that single-use plastic pollution would increase during the pandemic, particularly from personal protective equipment (PPE), YouGov’s study suggests people were more conscious of their plastic footprint during lockdown, with almost a fifth (18 per cent) of people avoiding plastic packaging as much as possible.

Despite decisions by large coffee shop chains in March to stop taking reusable coffee cups and bottles, only five per cent of consumers think single-use items are safer than reusables, and only one in 10 require reassurance that reusable containers are safe to use.

Commenting on the study, Sarah Taylor, Managing Director of BRITA UK, said: “The damage that single-use plastic is doing to our marine environment and wildlife, in addition to our wider natural environment, has been well documented. But we also know that many people are committed to tackling this, and it is encouraging to see from this research that even more people have adopted more sustainable behaviours during lockdown in place of less sustainable habits borne out of convenience.

“What’s clear is that in order to maintain this shift, government, business and the wider public need to come together to support a more flexible working culture that enables those who can to work remotely at least part of the week, to give people the time and space to integrate sustainability into their lives.”

Government must do more

As part of the government’s Environment Bill, proposals have been made for the introduction of a deposit return scheme (DRS) for single-use drinks containers in 2020. Business leaders and campaigners, however, have expressed concerns over the proposed use of a flat rate for all containers, suggesting that a variable deposit should be used for different containers to discourage consumers from buying larger plastic bottles.

Think tank Green Alliance has been critical of the government’s approach to tackling plastic pollution, labelling its 2018 Resource and Waste Strategy, in which the DRS was first proposed, as ‘piecemeal’.

Due to public concern over the impact of plastic waste, many companies have moved away from plastics towards alternatives such as cartons, glass or aluminium. Green Alliance has been particularly critical of this approach, arguing that ‘single-use’ is the problem rather than the plastic. An earlier report from the think tank found that plastic packaging alternatives such as glass actually have a higher carbon footprint, with all materials carrying environmental impacts in some capacity.

However, Sian Sutherland, A Plastic Planet co-founder, calls for stronger action from the government on plastic pollution. Environment Secretary George Eustice admitted in an evidence session with the EAC that “people may have reverted back to disposable packaging” during the Covid-19 pandemic due to hygiene concerns.

Sutherland said: “It’s great to see that when we abandon our grab and go lifestyle for a few months, it can have a measurable impact on the use of plastic bottles. However, I’m sure the increase in supermarket plastic through the pandemic may have outweighed this reduction.

"We need to look at real data – plastic production is increasing daily, global recycling is down and pollution is up. We urgently need government action on banning plastic waste exports, taxing plastic and enforcing producer responsibility for the impact their choices have on our environment and our future health."

A study published last week by think tank The Pew Charitable Trusts estimated that the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean could triple by 2040 without governments making significant changes, with current commitments only estimated to reduce the amount of plastic entering the oceans by seven per cent over the same timeframe.

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