Britons want to see cafes, coffee shops and restaurants offer drinking water in glasses or refill containers, rather than leaving them to rely on single-use plastic bottles. This comes after more than a year of venues opting not to accept reusable containers on the grounds of preventing Covid-19 transmission, during which time single-use plastic waste has skyrocketed.
One survey by charity Thames21 found more than 1,600 plastic cups during clean-ups between July and September 2020, twice as many as the same period last year, despite the fact that pubs and restaurants were closed between March and early July. Single-use plastic bottles were more widespread than initially thought, with bottles recovered in 92% of the sections surveyed.
With the hospitality sector now fully unlocked, YouGov research suggests 70% of consumers agree that food and drink businesses should provide free tap or filtered water, regardless of whether they are customers or not, while two thirds (64%) are comfortable asking for a free glass of water from a café or restaurant. Amongst 18–34-year-olds, four fifths (79%) agree that businesses that serve food and / or drinks should be required to provide free tap or filtered water to people on request.
The agreement that venues should provide drinking water is up 15% on 2017 (55%) compared to 2021 (70%), when research by Keep Britain Tidy and BRITA UK found that only 55% of adults felt that businesses that serve food and / or drinks should be required to provide free tap or filtered water to people on request, regardless of whether they are a customer or not. This shift tallies with a growing public consciousness around the impact of single-use plastic pollution, prompted by shocking research predicting that there could be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.
Government Covid-19 guidance left it up to businesses to decide whether or not to allow the use of reusable cups or containers, although the legal requirement to offer free tap water remained unchanged. Although research quickly emerged suggesting reusable containers could be handled safely, many venues have remained reticent to offer refills, with some coffee chains and independent businesses also banning reusable coffee cups since last March. Whilst many are now accepting reusables again, some large chains continue to employ single-use cup only policies – undoing the good work of the hospitality industry to tackle the plastic crisis in the preceding years.
In 2017, Keep Britain Tidy and BRITA discovered that 67% of adults felt uncomfortable asking for free tap water without buying something else and more than a third (35%) felt uncomfortable asking for it in a reusable bottle even if they were spending money there already. But now, three years after the airing of Blue Planet II, consumers are more confident about asking for bottles to be refilled, with over half (57%) feeling comfortable making this request as a customer in 2021. However, just over a third (36%) still feel uncomfortable, representing the need for continued education and communication about consumer rights in this area.
It is clear that there is much more we can all do to help people swap for good to things like refillable bottles and reduce their single-use plastic footprint, whether that is reassuring them about the safety of water fountains or making it as easy as possible to fill up and stay hydrated on the go
Despite the progress made around the provision of public drinking water fountains including in major cities such as London, at the start of the UK lockdown many public fountain owners made the decision to close fountains and pause the installation of new ones. It is therefore not surprising to see that consumers have become more concerned about the cleanliness of public water taps, fountains and dispensers over the last few years, with a 15% increase in those who’re worried about this in 2021 (68%) compared to 2017 (53%).
According to Recycle Now, the national recycling campaign for England, an average of 35.8 million plastic bottles are used every day in the UK, but only 19.8 million are recycled every day. Add that to the roughly 2.5 billion coffee cups thrown away each year in the UK and the growing phenomenon of single-use plastic PPE litter such as gloves and masks, and it’s clear why experts and campaigners are calling for urgent action.
The survey also found that:
- 49% of adults disagreed that single-use plastic water bottles are currently more hygienic than reusable alternatives, rising to 55% of 18-24-year-olds and 53% of 25-34-year-olds.
- Only 24% of UK adults surveyed were not worried about the cleanliness of public water taps, fountains and dispensers.
- Less than a third (23%) disagreed that businesses that serve food and/or drinks should be required to provide free tap or filtered water to people on request, regardless of whether they’re a customer or not. This drops to only 15% of 18-34-year-olds, demonstrating the greater expectations young consumers have of businesses to help them be more sustainable.
- The majority of adults (64%) felt comfortable asking for a free glass of water from a café or restaurant, rising to 67% for 18-24-year-olds. However, a third (31%) still feel uncomfortable making this request.
- 25% feel comfortable asking for a reusable water bottle to be refilled with free drinking water from a café or restaurant even if they’re not a customer. This increases to 30% of 18–34-year-olds.
- However, 67% still feel uncomfortable about asking for their reusable bottle to be refilled with free drinking water if they’re not a customer. This rises to 70% for those over 55.
We need to redouble our efforts now by encouraging and supporting everyone to swap out those single-use plastics items for environmentally friendly alternatives, including reusable water bottles and coffee cups.
The UK Government is aiming to tackle problems such as littering and move towards a more circular economy with the Environment Bill championing reuse systems. Earlier this year, Resources and Waste Minister Rebecca Pow confirmed that “We have seen an increased reliance on single-use plastic items throughout Covid-19, and as we emerge from the pandemic we must redouble our efforts to address plastic pollution and break our plastic habit for good.” However, the latest research shows that post-Covid, more may need to be done to help draw consumers away from a perceived safety factor of single-use plastic, as over a third (39%) of UK adults surveyed feel that single-use plastic water bottles are currently more hygienic than reusable alternatives.
Rebecca Widdowson, Marketing Director of BRITA UK, said: “The damage single-use plastic is doing to our marine and wider environment has been well documented. It is clear many people are committed to tackling this, but also that we must do all we can to tackle unnecessary single-use plastic pollution that has arisen over the course of the pandemic. Our latest research shows that as restrictions are removed, there is a continued appetite from consumers to return to more sustainable daily behaviours. It is clear that there is much more we can all do to help people swap for good to things like refillable bottles and reduce their single-use plastic footprint, whether that is reassuring them about the safety of water fountains or making it as easy as possible to fill up and stay hydrated on the go.”
Allison Ogden-Newton OBE, Chief Executive of environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy, said: “The past 16 months has seen a worrying upsurge in the use of single-use plastics, including face masks and gloves, and there have been moves away from reuse and refill due to health concerns. As lockdown eases now is the time to emphasise that we must not go back to the bad old days and continue to be vigilant against the rising tide of single-use plastic. Our plastic pollution crisis has not gone away.
“We need to redouble our efforts now by encouraging and supporting everyone to swap out those single-use plastics items for environmentally friendly alternatives, including reusable water bottles and coffee cups. It is only by a concerted national effort that we can stem the tide of plastic getting into our waterways and oceans, causing untold damage to marine life and leaving a legacy of toxic pollution for generations to come.”
 All licensed premises in England and Wales are required by law to provide “free potable water” to their customers upon request. In Scotland a similar law applies, but specifies “tap water fit for drinking”. This means pubs, bars, nightclubs, cafes, restaurants, takeaway food and drink outlets, cinemas, theatres, and even village and community halls – so long as they are authorised to serve alcohol. However, these premises can charge people for the use of a glass – or their service – when serving the “free” tap water.