By Mark Richards

We are gradually becoming aware of the harmful effects of plastic on both the environment and our own health – but around the world sales of bottled water continue to increase. Now Water UK is doing its best to reverse the trend as it leads the fight for more water fountains and ‘refill points’ across the country…

When I was a boy there were drinking fountains. This was not quite the YouTube clip I was looking for, but you get the picture. There wasn’t one on every street corner but they were plentiful. If you were thirsty, the next water fountain would not be far away.

And then they died out. Vandalised, too expensive to maintain, water fountains went the way of the red telephone box. In fact, water pretty much went out of fashion: there was a time when no-one really drank water. “Water? I saw a documentary. It’s recycled: been through Margaret Thatcher’s kidneys. Alright then, a cup of tea, but boil the kettle three times…”

But gradually, water became fashionable again. Sales of bottled water soared. Nowadays no-one – at least no-one who wants to be taken seriously – walks into a business meeting without conspicuously holding a bottle of Evian, Perrier, Volvic or – my own favourite – San Pellegrino.

The trouble is, all this bottled water comes at a price – to the environment, and to our health. The vast majority of it comes in ‘single-use’ plastic bottles and the majority of those bottles are thrown away and never recycled. The numbers for the worldwide use of plastic bottles make grim reading:

  • 1,000,000 are bought every minute
  • In 2016, a total of 480bn plastic bottles were sold – 110bn of which were made by Coca-Cola
  • Less than 50% of the bottles are collected for recycling
  • Only 7% are turned into new bottles

It could get worse before it gets better…

Bottled Water: Free water across country to cut plastic waste | CLNews

The chances are that those figures are going to increase. Demand for bottled water in China and India continues to increase year on year. According to UN predictions, India will overtake China as the world’s most populous country by 2022 – and the country’s demand for premium bottled water in 2018 is predicted to be three times what it was just five years ago.

But as we noted above there is a price to pay – and we are all paying it.

The problem for all of us is that micro-plastics – tiny, tiny pieces of plastic that can be almost invisible to the naked eye – are entering the food chain. Micro-plastics come from the disposal of consumer waste and the industrial processes using plastic and, all too often, end up in the ocean. Now a scientist has filmed plankton ingesting micro-plastic. And once it is in plankton it is in the marine food chain and – ultimately – in us.

That three-fold increase in premium bottled water consumption in India? The country’s holiest river is the Ganges, but it is being choked by a rising tide of plastic as it flows into the Bay of Bengal.

And with the United Nations estimating that there are 46,000 pieces of waste plastic per square mile of sea it is a problem that is going to take a long, long time to solve. So anything we can do to make a start now has to be good news.

Water UK to the rescue?

But now industry body Water UK is rolling out a scheme which will see free water refill points in every major town and city in England by 2021. They are claiming that it could cut the use of disposable plastic bottles – ‘single-use plastic’ as it is termed – by tens of millions a year.

Whitbread – owner of Costa Coffee and Premier Inns – has already signed up to the scheme and water will be available in all its outlets from March. And you will be able to find your nearest ‘refill station’ – the sophisticated, hi-tech, water dispensing device previously known as a ‘tap’ – and public water fountains via signs in shop windows and an app on your phone. Perhaps I could be the first to register the name ‘Tap App…’

Commercially that makes good sense. It will create a feelgood factor for Costa – and all the other companies that are likely to quickly follow in their footsteps – and while you’re in there those salted caramel brownies look good. And after all, there are no calories in your water…

But it is not just private companies

Bottled Water: Free water across country to cut plastic waste | CLNews

The public sector will need to play its part as well – and that means your local council. But the Local Government Association says it does not have any data on the number of public drinking fountains: as they fell into disuse with the rise of bottled water it appears that town halls up and down the country lost interest.

The Drinking Fountain Association – founded as the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association in 1859 – owns 2,406 fountains in England, but the vast majority are not working fountains, they are historic monuments. Hundreds of drinking fountains were installed in Victorian times, both the promote public health and as part of the temperance movement, with many of them being placed outside pubs.

Well, plastic is now as big a danger to public health as beer and gin were perceived to be in the 19th Century: but will local councils – desperate to save money – do anything about it?

So far London Mayor Sadiq Khan has pledged to create 20 new fountains and bottle refill points across the city. I will leave you to do the maths but 20 fountains for 8m people sounds like some rather long queues.

Like so many of the subjects we write about it is one that calls for a bit of joined-up government. It cannot be left to individual initiatives like this scheme in Bristol. Public investment in water fountains would almost certainly save the NHS a fortune in the future. But with the government saying it will take 25 years to create a plastic-free high street, we may have a long wait…