Cities like San Francisco and Zürich prove it’s possible. All we need is the willby Jessica Furseth / December 19, 2017 / Leave a comment
Five years ago in San Francisco, I got a glimpse into a world where carrying a refillable water bottle is normal. I’d bought one myself in California—the original hippie location has a way of inspiring you to be green—but as I approached airport security on my way home to London I didn’t know what to do with it. But I needn’t have worried: at San Francisco International Airport there’s a sink before security to empty your refillable bottle, and a tap after security to fill it back up again.
I’ve carried my refillable water bottle around with me ever since, but the practice has never felt as natural as it did in San Francisco. More than once I’ve sheepishly tipped water straight into bins at London airports, after innumerable refills around town from taps with questionable hygienic credentials.
But the city where I live seems to be catching on. Mayor Sadiq Khan has suggested we fill London with water fountains and bottle refill stations, in an effort to reduce plastic waste. Michael Gove has called for a similar initiative to be implemented across Britain. Former London Mayor Boris Johnson tried to launch this initiative in 2008, but got nowhere. Will the idea fare better this time?
The case for free drinking water appears to be an initiative with no real downside. Firstly, plastic bottles are an environmental disaster, with one million bought worldwide every minute. Cost is an issue, but Thames Water is on board, and installing drinking fountains is relatively cheap. If we genuinely want to fill London with water refill stations, it will not be difficult.
But of course, this isn’t just about what’s practical—it’s also about culture. One striking headline over the past few days’ discussion about the water refill issue said it’s “not very British,” quoting an official who was asked why there weren’t more fountains in Britain.
This statement is correct in the sense that there currently aren’t a lot of drinking fountains around Britain: numbers collected by the Guardian shows there are only 111 council-owned public fountains in London. But from a historical perspective, water fountains are very British indeed.
In Victorian times, they were embraced as a means to promote public health and temperance. The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association was established in 1859 to provide free drinking water in a time when the river Thames was full of untreated sewage and factory waste, and water-borne disease was common. But as conditions improved, drinking fountains eventually fell out of favour due to hygiene concerns.
As modern water refill stations have solved the hygiene issue, any resistance to water fountains are down to perception, plus concern for commercial interests. After all, if you can refill your bottle for free at a train station, you won’t buy one from a shop. But this doesn’t have to be all bad for retailers: Bristol has launched a scheme where cafés advertise free water refills, with the idea that this also brings more trade to the participating shops.
Earlier this year, San Francisco banned the sale of packaged water on government property. For years, the city has led the way on encouraging people to carry refillable bottles by installing hygienic refill stations across the city, especially in areas close to parks, transit hubs and community centres.
The San Francisco case study shows that people will use refill stations as long as they are hygienic in design and provide clean, safe water. Although you don’t need modern fountains to achieve this: Zürich is famous for having 1,200 historic water fountains around the city, all issuing drinkable water.
If the Mayor of London, or the government, wants people to use refillable water bottles, it would not be difficult. Rolling out a network of water refill stations, paired with a small fee on the sale of each disposable plastic bottle, would be a great start. We’ve seen before how some subtle social engineering can have a big effect: plastic bag usage in England dropped by 85 per cent in the six months after the introduction of a symbolic 5p charge. So there’s no reason we can’t make London into a water refill haven—if we want to.