25.At present, approximately 2.5 billion plastic bottles are landfilled each year in the UK and 3 million are incinerated. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs guidance on the waste hierarchy states:
It gives top priority to preventing waste in the first place. When waste is created, it gives priority to preparing it for re-use, then recycling, then recovery and last of all disposal (e.g. landfill.)
26.It follows that Government should prioritise minimising creation of plastic bottles in the first instance. We received written and oral evidence from the #OneLess campaign, a project working to reduce the number of plastic bottles that enter the marine environment by encouraging a culture of using a refillable bottle. #OneLess told us:
Significantly reducing our use of single-use plastic water bottles presents a major opportunity, both in London and across the UK, to combat disposable plastic waste. In line with DEFRA’s waste hierarchy guidance, efforts should be directed towards preventing plastic bottle waste in the first place, and encouraging re-use.
27.We have heard that approximately half of the plastic bottles used by the UK each year are plastic water bottles - approximately 7.7 billion. On average, a person will use 150 plastic water bottles each year, and in London usage is 175 water bottles per person every year. If people instead used a refillable bottle, waste from disposable plastic bottles could be reduced. However, #OneLess has noted two main ‘sticking points’ to the behavioural shift to using a refillable bottle; a lack of freely available drinking water in public spaces and the perception that tap water is not safe to drink. Project Manager of #OneLess, Fiona Llewellyn told us:
We are in a really privileged position here in the UK. We have an alternative, we have safe and clean and healthy drinking water that is available to us out of our taps and from drinking fountains. If we could remove that plastic from the system, that would be a wonderful step forward, if the Government is doing anything to support that.
28.A survey in 2010 found that drinking water facilities were only available in 11% of UK parks. Local authorities have powers but no responsibility to provide drinking water fountains, and regulations only specify that drinking water has to be provided in certain public buildings such as schools. Ofwat, the regulator of the water sector in England and Wales, told us that under the Water Industry Act 1991, water companies have no legal obligation, or explicit power to erect or maintain drinking fountains.
29.Research carried out by BRITA UK and Keep Britain Tidy found that 73% of people would like greater availability of free tap water in public spaces. In a bid to reduce plastic bottle waste, the French Government announced that it would be installing free water fountains in every square in Paris. Lee Marshall, from the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Service told us about the need for effective communications to ensure people would use drinking water fountains:
[…]the key is going to be communications. You are trying to get people to unlearn their current habits and then instil new habits in them. The provision of water fountains, if the infrastructure is there, would be good. It is then instilling in people that they the need to take bottles with them to use them in the first place and that being seen as a good habit to have.
30.We also heard evidence that the general public often feel uncomfortable asking for bottle refills in licensed restaurants, cafes and bars. BRITA UK’s research found that 71% of people feel uncomfortable asking for a glass of tap water when out and about. In England, Wales and Scotland, licensed premises are legally obliged to provide free drinking water to customers on request. However they are allowed to charge for service or the use of a glass if they wish. The regulation to provide drinking water in licensed premises was introduced to encourage people to drink water while consuming alcoholic beverages. Accordingly there is no obligation for unlicensed premises, such as sports centres, cinemas, shops, cafes, bus and railway stations and tourist centres to provide free drinking water. Fiona Llewellyn from #OneLess told us how businesses can voluntarily get involved in ‘community water schemes’:
There are some great groups out there at the moment that are looking at developing apps so you can find out where to fill up. There is a group down in Bristol called Refill Bristol and we are doing some work with them here in London as well. There is an app that you can use and if a shop is in agreement to say, “Yes, you can come in and fill up for free. You don’t have to buy anything. We are a refill station”, they put a sticker in the window and they get put on the app. Things like that are going to start taking away, as you rightly said, the anxiety of people being too scared or embarrassed to go in and ask for it. What we are trying to work towards is having this cultural shift whereby it is the social norm that you can go into a shop, you can go into a Starbucks for example, and fill up there for free without having to buy anything.
However, unlike Wales’ ‘community toilet schemes’ in which participating businesses are offered a grant to allow the public to use their toilets without needing to purchase anything, businesses involved in community water schemes are not offered any financial incentive to prove drinking water for non-customers.
31.BRITA UK and Keep Britain Tidy’s research also found that 65% of people would be more likely to use a reusable water bottle if tap water refills were freely available in places such as shops, airports and parks. We heard about a number of businesses that have recently committed to stop selling plastic water bottles. Selfridges was the first retailer in the UK to permanently stop the sale of single-use plastic water bottles in store, ending the sale of approximately 400,000 bottles annually. Customers are instead encouraged to purchase, or use their own, refillable bottles and refill in store for free. London and Whipsnade Zoos have also halted the sale of plastic water bottles. If the use of plastic water bottles was reduced by 65%, this would mean the UK would use 5 billion fewer plastic water bottles annually.
32.Access to clean drinking water is a basic human right. The Government should prioritise reducing the use of plastic bottles. We believe that small changes can deliver big results. The UK has a ready supply of safe, clean tap water, yet the consumption of bottled water continues to grow. We have heard that providing more free drinking water taps and fountains in public spaces could lead to a 65% reduction in the use of plastic water bottles, but there is no obligation for unlicensed premises to provide free drinking water. We call on the Government to introduce a regulation for all public premises which serve food or drink to provide free drinking water on request, including sports centres and leisure centres. Businesses should volunteer to get involved with community water schemes such as Refill Bristol to advertise their provision of free drinking water.
33.There are very few water fountains in parks and other public spaces. There are none in Manchester or Merseyside, one in West Yorkshire, and four in the West Midlands. We believe that the provision of free water fountains provides an opportunity for water companies to demonstrate their corporate social responsibility. We were disappointed not to receive evidence from water companies given their filtration and sewage systems remove huge amounts of plastic debris from waterways. Yorkshire Water has installed three fountains in Hull, as part of their celebration of being 2017 City of Culture, we urge other water companies to follow suit. The Government should review the health and litter-reducing benefits of providing public water fountains, amend the Water Industry Act 1991 to give water companies formal powers to erect water fountains. Additionally, the Government should run a wide-reaching communications campaign to actively promote the use of refillable bottles to ensure that new water fountains and refill stations within shops and transportation hubs are used.
34.Parliament and Government departments must show leadership and ban the sale of disposable plastic bottles in their buildings–providing water fountains and reusable bottles instead. We would like to see a plastic-free Parliament.
42 #OneLess Campaign (PKG0083A)
43 Q193, #OneLess Campaign (PKG0083A)
45 Sustain and Children’s Food Campaign, Thirsty play: a survey of drinking water provision in public parks (May 2010)
46 Ofwat (PKG0044B)
47 BRITA UK (PKG0008B)
50 BRITA UK (PKG0008B) In Northern Ireland there is no such obligation for licensed premises to provide drinking water.
51 Section 182, Licensing Act (2003)
53 BRITA UK (PKG0008B), Centre for Social Innovation, Keep Britain Tidy, Understanding provision, usage and perceptions of free drinking water to the public in the UK (April 2017)
54 #OneLess Campaign (PKG0083A)
20 December 2017