35 million plastic drinks bottles are used every day in the UK, of which nearly 16 million are not recycled. This is about 13 billion bottles bought every year and 43% are not recycled. These statistics, in a House of Commons Report printed 19 December 2017, signal the need for change.

So where do these bottles go? Onto streets, into oceans, landfill sites and into the air via incineration and landfill. Some 700,000 are dropped as litter each day in the UK While 5-13 million tonnes of plastic leaks into the oceans each year to be ingested by marine life, threatening ecosystems (MacArthur Foundation). A recent study by Plymouth University found plastic in a third of UK caught fish which raises the risk of “micro plastic pollution in edible tissues of commercial fish”(European Food Safety Authority). If pollution levels continue it is estimated plastic will outweigh fish in the oceans by 2050. Landfill, of which 300,000 tonnes goes to China who recently banned such waste from the UK and incineration, together, create c.233,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions p/a. Moreover, plastic takes about 500 years to decompose and 3-5 litres of water are used to produce a 1 litre water bottle. It is clear that plastic bottles are creating their own environmental crisis which is every bit as serious as climate change.

There are arguments for the use of plastic drinks bottles in the face of natural disasters, for example, when the water supply has been contaminated, as happened in the Caribbean post Hurricane Irma September 2017. Water bottles are also used in underdeveloped countries where there is a risk of groundwater contamination, a lack of tap water or concerns over its quality. Although the cost of the bottled water is often prohibitively expensive to these communities, it is invaluable when provided free by Charities. In the UK there are few usage justifications and plastic bottles are largely avoidable where fresh, clean drinking water is widely available to top up reusable drinking containers. Non water plastic drink bottles rarely provide any essential dietary requirements and are often drinks packed with unhealthy sugars. 

The Mayor of London, in conjunction with the #OneLessCampaign, announced at the end of 2017, a scheme to install a network of 20 new drinking fountains and to create bottle refill points locatable via an app, just like the system in Melbourne, across 5 London areas in March, to be extended over the capital in the summer if successful. Few London Boroughs have fountains; Lambeth and Tower Hamlets have the most, some 13 working ones. The City of London will boost fountains in the Square Mile and National Rail is installing water refill stations in 10 London termini including Waterloo. Whitbread has committed Costa and Premier Inn to provide “Free Refills on the go”(Natalie Fee, City to Sea) in accordance with the new national water scheme. Pret A Manger are considering adding 10p to the cost of plastic bottles. Borough Market in 2017, London Zoo 2016 and Selfridges 2015 have banned the sale of water bottles. Selfridges installed a drinking fountain in its main hall and ended the sale of 400,000 bottles p/a. Other retailers are more concerned at the potential loss of revenue from such action. 

Drinks companies are being encouraged to make all plastic bottles from the highly recyclable polyethylene terephthalate (PET), or even better the 100% recycled RPET which uses 75% less energy in production. The top 6 drinks companies only use an average of 6.6% recycled PET in their products (Greenpeace) mainly due to the fact it produces a non shiny, less consumer friendly look. 

It is significant that Richmond Borough Council pledged support, in a cross party motion, during a meeting on 24th January 2018, for Government and industry initiatives to reduce plastic waste, including a proposed Bottle Deposit Scheme, reward and return for plastic bottles, which has been so successful in Denmark and is currently being investigated by a government working group. The Council also asked residents, businesses and communities to consider initiatives which encourage the use of reusable bottles. There is currently a petition for Kingston University to follow Hong Kong University’s example and ban plastic bottle sales. More local organisations need to consider their positions. As Cllr Fleming stated as she put forward the motion, “let's work together and make Richmond the leading borough in eliminating unnecessary use of plastic.”

Toby Tolson, Hampton School