UK's Refill Campaign Is a Clever Solution to the Plastic Bottle Plague

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©. Refill campaign

This community-driven initiative uses an app to connect thirsty people with businesses that will fill bottles with tap water.

In an ideal world, there would be clean water fountains on every street corner, where people could refill their water bottles as needed. This would eliminate the need for disposable plastic bottles, but unfortunately this infrastructure is not developing as quickly as it should. Cities are reluctant to install water fountains because they are expensive and require constant cleaning and maintenance in order to appeal to the general public.

A group of concerned citizens in Bristol, England, led by anti-plastic activist Natalie Fee, has come up with a clever alternative. Their Refill campaign connects thirsty people with local cafés, shops, and hotels that are willing to refill their bottles for free, using tap water. Businesses sign up to participate, put a blue Refill sticker on their door, and appear on an app that reveals their location to thirsty travellers and locals.

Refill Bristol campaign

© Refill Bristol

The idea is extremely simple, but it has been surprisingly successful. With two months of launching in 2015, more than 200 businesses in Bristol had signed on to the Refill campaign, and, two years later, it continues to spread to cities across England and Germany.

Why has Refill been so successful?

First, it legitimizes tap water as a decent source of drinking water. (I realize how sad it is to write that, but it’s true.) Some people are very uncomfortable asking for tap water, feeling as though they should buy something in order to justify the request. An article called “How to live without plastic bottles” cited some depressing statistics from the UK:

“In a recent study, 71 percent of consumers admitted to feeling uncomfortable when asking for free tap water from an establishment if they hadn’t purchased anything. And 30 percent of people said they would still feel awkward asking for a free refill even if they had bought other food or drinks.”

People also worry about the quality of tap water, possibly because they’ve fallen victim to the bottled water industry’s message that water in plastic is somehow better than tap-sourced. (That’s not true; tap water is better regulated than bottled.) A sign on the door means it’s safe and OK to ask.

Second, the Refill campaign has instantly created easy-to-access sources of clean drinking water all over the place. Participants add the Refill app to their phone and are able to see the nearest location where they can refill water bottles. There’s no need for emergency plastic water bottle purchases. The app offers nice incentives, too.

"The app offers reward points when people fill up their bottle, which can be redeemed to earn a stainless steel water bottle. The longer-term ambition is that users will be able to translate points into vouchers for ethically produced clothes and equipment – and even be informed about traders who avoid plastic waste."

Third, it’s a mutually beneficial situation. Bringing people into a shop for water likely translates into greater sales for storeowners, and it builds solidarity among likeminded individuals who believe that avoiding plastic and protecting the environment should be a priority.

The cumulative effect of this community-driven effort is impressive. From The Guardian:

“The UK campaign calculates that if every Refill station in Bristol performed just one refill everyday, 73,000 fewer plastic bottles would be thrown away every year in Bristol alone. If every Bristolian refilled once a week instead of buying a single-use plastic bottle, the city would reduce its waste plastic bottle consumption by 22.3m a year.”

The Refill campaign offers a model for effectively combating plastic bottle pollution, and hopefully it will continue to spread around the globe to all places where tap water is safe for drinking.