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Water on tap

Single-use plastic water bottles have become a scourge of modern living, but water refill stations offer a practical alternative. Mike Winter, MD of MIW Water Cooler Experts, explains

In our fast-paced and consumer-led modern society, where people are constantly on the move and are more health-conscious than ever before, a portable source of hydration is a staple. In fact, so great is our reliance on bottled water that the UK spends £2.4 million a year to stay hydrated on the go, getting through 38.5 million plastic bottles every single day. But what happens to these bottles when they have served their purpose?

Only just over half of them make it to recycling centres. This means that 16 million plastic bottles go to landfill, are burnt, or end up leaking into the environment and our oceans, where they can take up to 450 years to break down. Not only this, but the bottled water industry in the UK releases 350,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, contributing to dangerous climate change.

No wonder, then, that the discarded plastic bottle is one of the most common symbols of plastic waste in the environment – an issue that has been front and centre on the public agenda since Blue Planet II shocked audiences with stark images of plastic wreaking havoc on wildlife and ecosystems. Increased public awareness of plastic waste has – rightly – put enormous pressure on government and the private sector to take steps to tackle the problem. As a result, we’ve seen the introduction of policies like the plastic bag tax, plastic-free fruit and veg aisles, and pledges to phase out plastic packaging from supermarkets and manufacturers alike.

As consumers try to enact more environmentally sustainable behaviour, one of the most obvious examples of avoidable plastic is the single-use bottle. Global sales of longer-lasting, reusable bottles have risen sharply in the last couple of years and are expected to reach $24 billion by 2025. This shift towards refilling rather than buying new does, however, require the provision of a visible, safe and hygienic water supply. In fact, a report released last year by Keep Britain Tidy found that 78 per cent of people in the UK want free tap water to be more readily available to the public.

As this trend continues, the UK is leading the way in installing water fountains in high-profile retail estates such as Canary Wharf. Indeed, I was surprised to hear from Franco Savoni, Vice President of refill station manufacturer Elkay, on a recent visit to the UK that we are ahead of the US in this regard. While vast shopping malls are a long-established feature of the US, it is still rare for them to provide water refill stations. The refill movement in the US is instead being led by colleges, where the younger generations are more keenly tackling single-use plastics.

Retail estates see hundreds, sometimes thousands of people pass through their halls on a daily basis. Visitors and workers browse shops, take breaks in cafés and have meals in food courts, sometimes devoting entire days to shopping centres. Many of them will need to hydrate during this time – and a growing number of visitors and staff are likely to carry a reusable water bottle on the go. The combination of long dwell times and high footfall means retail estates are in an ideal position to promote and indeed normalise the practice of refilling water bottles rather than buying a new one.

In today’s climate of environmental awareness, estate facilities managers will be well aware of the importance of a robust sustainability policy. The practical benefits go far beyond PR, including greater employee engagement, reduced operating costs and a higher priority placed on innovation. The presence of a water refill station not only demonstrates to workers and visitors a commitment to environmental sustainability, but also serves as a reminder to staff and visitors to stay hydrated in a healthy way. Obesity is one of the greatest health challenges the UK faces; a vending machine supplying sugary food and drinks contributes to the problem, whereas a water fountain incentivises people to hydrate more frequently, helping them to form healthy habits.

Water refill stations have come a long way from the Victorian fountains that used to fill our cities. In the past, water provision was limited to either traditional drinking fountains, or unwieldy and electricity-guzzling bottled water dispensers, complete with disposable plastic cups. Today, the best modern WRAS-approved water refill stations are robust, vandal-proof, hygienic and easy to maintain, with features to ensure that water is not wasted as bottles are filled up.

They are more aesthetically pleasing than traditional water dispensers, and can be designed to be accessible to wheelchair users. Architects, builders and designers of retail and leisure facilities, public spaces and business parks can work with water refill station suppliers to integrate water provision into the scheme design.

Moreover, new technology means that for the first time the impact of refill stations on behaviour and environmental performance is measurable. Units can be equipped with a device that tracks the number of plastic water bottles replaced by refills. These figures provide an effective way of demonstrating to staff, tenants, visitors and other key stakeholders the plastic waste reduction achieved.

Between the environmental, financial and, of course, health benefits of a safe, hygienic and free supply of water, it’s clear that a culture of refilling one’s own water bottle, rather than buying bottles, is on the rise. A free water supply is now a common sight in public parks and commuter hubs, and indeed has come to be expected by consumers in public places. By installing water refill stations, retail estates have the opportunity to capitalise on this behavioural shift while enhancing the experience of staff and shoppers, and helping to tackle one of the most serious environmental problems of our time.

About Sarah OBeirne

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