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Plastic Bottle waste in the UK – what to do?

1st June 2017

British adults are suggested to use over 7.5 billion single-use plastic bottles each year, the majority of which are not recycled. One factor linked to this is the reluctance of consumers to obtain free tap water from businesses, especially when a purchase has not been made. Recent research into the provision, usage and perception of free drinking water in the UK has suggested that British people do not feel comfortable requesting free water, especially to fill a re-useable bottle. One implication is that the contribution of bottled drinks to the UK waste stream is significant and ought to be tackled. The challenge, as always, is how to achieve this.

One issue raised through the research was the use of public fountains. Survey participants reported greater concern with the cleanliness of public water sources than with the cleanliness of UK tap water, implying this as a factor preventing people from using these sources. If social and individual barriers to use can be overcome, public water taps offer a significant opportunity to enable consumers to obtain free water without feeling as though a business is being inconvenienced, as well as out of business hours and away from built up areas.

Plastic bottle waste

However, rolling out wider reaching public fountains may pose significant infrastructure challenges which may be more easily met by encouraging people to use businesses as a source of water. The research pointed to three ‘community water schemes’ aimed at reducing bottled water consumption. These schemes focus on encouraging re-fillable bottle use as well as encouraging businesses to emphasise their willingness to provide free water to all consumers. These campaigns could also aim to encourage people to ask for water more actively.

Decreasing single-use bottle purchases achieves one goal, yet takes no action to deal with the waste generated when these bottles are purchased. The UK already has an extensive Extended Producer Responsibility scheme for packaging in place with the aim of reducing waste and funding recycling. That single-use bottles remain considered an issue suggests further regulation or change is required. This may involve a bottle deposit scheme, such as that proposed as part of the Labour party manifesto for the 2017 general election, or perhaps something more radical, such as cessation of sales of single-use bottles.

Single-use bottle sales in the UK are certainly significant and it may be that improving access and uptake of tap water is a successful way to reduce bottle waste. Any attempt should perhaps not have a singular focus, and instead target both the reduction of sales and increase in recycling and re-use.