The fight against single use plastics

Plastic waste is now, more than ever, a crucial issue that the earth is facing. In the UK alone, plastic waste amounts to nearly 5 million tons annually.  According to the Government in the UK, the average Londoner buys more than three plastic water bottles every week, or 175 bottles every year per person. In total, some 7.7 billion plastic bottles are bought across the UK each year, resulting in substantial amounts of single-use plastic waste ending up in landfill, and unfortunately, in the environment.

Refill is a start-up that aims to combat the number of plastic bottles that end up as waste each year by convincing restaurant chains, cafes and shops across the UK to allow people to refill their water bottles instead of buying bottled water, and an app that can show people where to find their nearest Refill station. Hugh Walker, a member of the Refill team, is passionate about the project. He explained how he got involved in the campaign: “I come from a generation where we never had bottled water when we were growing up, you just did not buy water. This is something that has happened in the last 30 or 40. The notion of buying water isn’t the problem, the problem is the plastic.

“In 2016, I was asked to get involved with the One Less Project, ran by the Zoological Society of London, which, initially, had the ambition to rid London of the single-use water bottle. They’re now trying to rid the use of single-use plastic, not just in London, but the UK. Since then, I’ve become involved with a personal campaign with Refill, a mobile app set up by City to Sea, a charity from Bristol, to reduce the use of single-use water bottles, by encouraging retail outlets like cafes to welcome walkers, cyclists, and indeed anybody, to refill their water bottles rather than selling them a new water bottle.

Refill is an initiative set up to encourage businesses around the UK to allow the public to refill their bottles instead of buying more bottled water. (Credit: Refill.org.uk)

 

The app is a talking point. It opens the conversation and that’s what’s needed. How many people will fill a water bottle is debatable. But, they have a sticker in the window, saying you’re welcome to come in and refill your bottle, so it’s just getting the subject expressed more, and the staff within the shops that sign up learn about it and that might start to change their behaviour. Small steps can achieve change. And the good thing is so many of the big café chains, big pub chains are getting on board with it.

Hugh Walker’s Refill tour. (Credit: Hugh Walker.)

 

“Last year, I started a cycle ride around the coast of the UK, stopping daily at cafes to encourage them to become a Refill station. Within a year, the number of Refill participants has increased from 1,000 to 15,000, many of them main retail outlets, fast food chains and coffee shops.”

Hugh explained the issue of plastic waste is proving detrimental to the future of the earth: “Its huge, absolutely huge. This is not just in relation to single use water bottles, its plastic. There are vast areas larger than France and Germany, particularly in the Pacific Ocean, which are literally floating islands of plastic waste. There are attempts to try to gather it up but it’s of huge dimensions.

“There are attempts to try and gather up the waste. They have boats with huge booms that stays in one place, and because the ocean is in a vortex, the waste comes to them, they have been having all sorts of technical problems with it but man is brilliant, man is a very clever species, so we are perfectly capable of coming up with something to address the issue if we put our minds to it. We just need enough resolve and funding to do it.

“Unfortunately, the fishing industry is a huge culprit. They have used the ocean as their waste bin for many years, and the main material they use is plastic line. If you do beach cleans, of which I have done many, waste fishing material is one of the main items you will find. Then it’s cotton buds, plastic water bottles, straws, ribbon from balloons, and many other things.

“The thing about the single use plastic water bottle, is that it’s low hanging fruit. It’s something we don’t have to use. There are 7.7 billion water bottles bought in the UK alone every year and it’s something that is not necessary, we don’t have to buy plastic bottles. We have perfectly good water coming through our taps. So therefore, the amount of plastic we use could be reduced significantly.”

When asked what his opinion on the Government’s attitude towards the issue, Hugh said: “They’re not neglecting it. They’re making the right noises, but action has been slow. The move to put a price on the supermarket plastic bag was immediately affective and reduced the use of plastic bags enormously. But we need more. There has been talk for over a year now for legislating against plastic straws and plastic cotton bud sticks but as far as I am aware that has not actually happened. You can still buy plastic straws.

McDonald’s is one of the first chains to replace plastic straws in their UK and Ireland restaurants by September of this year, which see 1.8 million straws used in their restaurants each day in the UK alone. Nando’s, Wetherspoons and Wagamama are also committed to removing plastic straws from their outlets.

Hugh explained it’s time to take action and let retail and restaurant chains know you won’t support them if they continue to use plastic items: “If your favourite fast food restaurant is still offering plastic disposables, walk away. That’s the fastest way to get them to act. Like we’ve seen with recent protests, they are effective. People’s voices do count. But we need manufacturers to see they have to do something. I think it is happening, but the fastest way is to vote with your feet and actually tell them. Go in and complain, say this is a plastic container and I’m not buying from your store.

“I think it needs a significant number of the younger generation to get on board with this, because they’re the ones who count. If they’re speaking loudly, manufacturers will listen. They are the future of their businesses.

“If you haven’t already got one, get yourself a reusable water bottle and use it every day, just carry it with you. You’ll save yourself money, and if you chill tap water, and filter it, it will taste virtually as good as other water. It doesn’t have to be a compromise in terms of quality of the water. That’s the easiest thing, stop buying water bottles. Be vocal. If you’re in a bar, and they have plastic straws, be vocal and complain.”

When asked what he would say to those reluctant to reducing their plastic usage, Hugh said: “I would ask them to think about their grandchildren. Our planet is at risk right now, and it’s something we have to address if we want to avoid wrecking our planet, which we are fast on course to doing. Sadly, it’s a naive approach to think the individual can’t make a difference, it’s an easy argument to say ‘well, what can I do, but everybody’s actions count. Through our own actions we have to encourage others. We’re all apart of society so we all contribute in one way or another.”