Features: April 5th, 2019

Mike Winter, CEO of MIW Water Cooler Experts, explains how drinking fountains can counter the blight of plastic waste.

Barely a day goes by when we don’t see a story in the media about the blight of plastic on our society – its effect on wildlife, rising litter levels in our rivers and on our beaches, and the emergence of microplastics in some fish and seafood. According to DEFRA, the UK recycling rate for waste from households is steadily increasing (up to nearly 46% in 2017), and we seem to be on track to meet the 2020 target of recycling at least 50% of household waste; but recycling alone will not solve the problem – we need to take steps to reduce the amount of plastic we actually use on a daily basis.

A prime contributor to plastic pollution in the UK is the single use drinks bottle – 38.5 million plastic bottles are bought in this country every day, but only just over half are recycled, while 16m are put into landfill, burnt or leak into the environment and oceans each day. Plastic bottles can take up to 450 years to break down once they reach the sea. Many of the popular bottled water brands consumed are transported hundreds of miles from their source, contributing to the 350,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere every year by the bottled water industry in the UK.

Blue Planet II and Blue Planet Live contributed to pushing the plastic pollution issue onto the front pages of national media and into the public consciousness – now residents, consumers, visitors, students and staff are increasingly demanding that organisations take action to reduce their plastic usage. Over the last couple of years this has led to more and more areas in the UK taking a stand against plastic water bottle waste by turning to the contemporary free-to-use public drinking fountain.

There was a time when free-to-use drinking fountains were found in every place of public gathering in the UK. The motivation then was the prevention of cholera, but as overall sanitation improved public fountains fell out of favour. Now they’re making a comeback and it is apt that our capital is championing the refill revolution – high profile venues such as Borough Market, ZSL London Zoo, Chelsea Football Club and Heathrow Airport have joined the public sector to offer free public drinking water to visitors. London pioneered its first public drinking water fountain in 1859, which at its peak was used by up to 7,000 people each day. Philanthropists started to contribute funds, and so more fountains were erected, and within 11 years there were 140 fountains in place across London.

Now London is once again providing safe drinking water to people on the move, with the recent rollout of public drinking water fountains and bottle refill stations by the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority. MIW Water Cooler Experts donated 20 water fountains and helped to jointly establish the London Drinking Fountain Fund with the GLA and #OneLess last year, with the aim of reducing the capital’s reliance on plastic. The fund called on land and site owners across London to bid for a drinking water fountain. Bids were assessed by #OneLess and the fountains have been installed in high footfall areas in a mixture of busy shopping areas, business districts, universities, public visitor attractions, transport hubs, community spaces and open parks.

The average London adult currently gets through 175 single-use plastic water bottles every year; adding up to one billion at the city-level. The problem will be on a comparable scale in every area in the UK, and I would encourage local authorities and other public sector organisations to follow cities such as Bristol and Hull in rolling out drinking water facilities.

Compared to other European cities, Britain is rather behind the times when it comes to drinking fountain provision. Zurich is famous for having 1,200 historic water fountains around the city, all issuing drinkable water – yet The Guardian reported in 2017 that across Greater Manchester, with a population of almost 2.8 million, there were no council-maintained drinking fountains – with those that had been installed, decommissioned. However – this is set to change with MIW’s installation of two water fountains in Bury in partnership with Refill, United Utilities and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) as part of the Mayor of Manchester’s Plastic Free GM Campaign – the first of many which we hope to see rolling out across the North West.

Perhaps we should also look further afield to Australia – where residents of the town of Bundanoon in New South Wales voted to ban plastic water bottles in 2009 – or to the US, where in 2017 San Francisco banned packaged water on city property.

We have to remember that bottled water is a relatively recent phenomenon, in the 30 years since we founded MIW, we have seen vast changes in attitudes to single use plastic. Bottled water only became mainstream in the late 1970s following slick marketing campaigns, and initially consumers were sceptical about paying money for something they would normally get for free. That initial scepticism soon gave way and the consumption of bottled water in the UK has almost doubled over the last 15 years.

However, there are positive signs that we are starting to revert back to our refill heritage. More and more of us are switching to using a refillable water bottle, instead of hundreds of single-use bottles. In fact, according to a recent survey, 65% of us wouldn’t buy bottled water at all if tap water were more freely available.

Schools, universities, museums and hospitals are taking the plunge – along with local councils up and down the country – including sites in historic locations such as the Natural History Museum and the Horniman Museum in London. Organisations planning new buildings or extensions, such as the V&A in Dundee, are including public water provision at the design stage.

A report released last year by Keep Britain Tidy found that 78% of people in the UK would like there to be greater availability of free tap water, and the public sector can show its commitment to a plastic free future for users by providing free, filtered drinking water in a range of key areas – if last year’s scorching summer was anything to go by, it’s more important than ever that people are able to keep hydrated on the move without resorting to buying bottled water. Authorities can track the number of bottles they’ve saved from ending up being bought and thrown away by using the device installed in the fountains and refill stations –an effective way of demonstrating the impact to residents and key stakeholders.

The latest models of outdoor fountains are tougher, safer and more accessible than ever before. Hygienic and efficient, they can be plumbed into practically any indoor or outdoor space, delivering water without any of the waste, litter or expense associated with contained drinks. Clever design means that once they’re installed – something that can usually be completed with minimal disruption if a sensible site is chosen – very little maintenance is required. Unlike their predecessors, current models of water fountain and bottle refill station are also vandal proof, weather-proof and corrosion-resistant, so there is very little in the way of on-going costs – and the evidence is that people love to use them.

Kingston Council recently unveiled the first of a number of new fountains to be installed across the borough in its historic market place, which has proved to be a hit with the public, providing clean and readily available drinking water for cyclists, families, shoppers and tourists alike.
While plastic waste is an issue that is not going to go away, we hope that we continue to see forward thinking public sector organisations making bold decisions to help hydrate people whilst they’re on the move – and make drinking fountains as much part of our street landscape as the post box – you might even find communities sharing an outdoor ‘water cooler moment’!

By Mike Winter, CEO of MIW Water Cooler Experts (www.miw.co.uk)
Formed in 1989, MIW now supplies over 7,000 businesses and public sector organisations with Water Regulations Advisory Scheme (WRAS) approved public drinking fountains, bottle refill stations and water coolers, and is the UK’s leading authority on outdoor drinking fountains. For the last 30 years MIW has been developing and building innovative, high quality products for some of the UK’s leading public and private sector clients including Southampton and Bournemouth Universities, London’s Borough Market, ZSL London Zoo, Greater London Authority, Staffordshire County Council, Vale of Glamorgan Council, Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Club, Chelsea Football Club, Scottish Water and The Bank of England.