The plastic bottle is fast becoming the villain of the plastic pollution saga. And rightly so. It’s one the most commonly found items of plastic on our beaches and one of the more complicated issues to solve. Unlike cotton buds or straws, the plastic bottle can’t be swapped out for paper or card. And with the UK government dragging their heels on a much needed deposit scheme, urgent action is needed if we want this story to have a happy ending.
The UK is still consuming 32 million single-use plastic bottles a day and only recycling half of them. The other 16 million end up getting incinerated, landfilled, or washed up on our beaches and riverbanks; which means by the time you’ve finished reading this article 50,000 plastic bottles will have had to give up any hopes they had of becoming anything useful.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that our Refill campaign made such a big splash in the news last month. In a pioneering drive to help fight plastic waste, water companies announced they’d be joining forces with Refill to create a national network of high street retailers, coffee shops, businesses and local authorities offering refill stations for the public to top-up their water bottles for free in every major city and town in England by 2021.
The concept is simple; carry a reusable water bottle and when you get thirsty, find a tap and fill it up. So why the need for a national campaign? Well, aside from the terrifying speed at which we’re losing marine life as a result of plastic pollution, the other, perhaps less obvious reason is that as a nation, it seems we need someone, or something, to give us permission. Permission to go into a business, that depends on people buying its goods and ask for something for nothing. The sheer act of walking through a shop door is inextricably linked to some kind of monetary exchange and we Brits feel uncomfortable about stepping out of that paradigm. We’re very polite. Which is in itself a charming characteristic but right now, if we want to do something about the catastrophic surge of plastic into our ecosystems, we’re going to have to be a lot bolder.
We can’t wait until 2042 for the government to meet its unambitious plans to tackle plastic pollution, eight years before it’s predicted there’ll be more plastic in the ocean than fish, by weight. We have to act now. And that’s what Refill does. It puts the power to stop plastic pollution from single-use plastic bottles in our hands, by giving us all an invitation to tap up our local shop or cafe for a guilt-free refill.
I left my job in the media to set up City to Sea in 2015 after seeing the devastating effects of plastic pollution first hand in my home city of Bristol. I found thousands of plastic bottles washing up on the river banks and witnessed islands of plastic floating down the river Avon out to sea. I figured if we couldn’t do something about plastic pollution during our year as ‘European Green Capital’ then we were all doomed. Thankfully we did do something. We piloted Refill in Bristol, which captured the attention of the city, gained over 200 Refill Stations within three months of launching and has since scaled up across the UK.
But City to Sea doesn’t just focus on plastic bottles. In 2016, to tackle the problem of cotton buds being flushed and making their way through the sewage system into our waterways, we launched #SwitchtheStick – a campaign calling on retailers to stop making them out of plastic and switch to paper stems. Three months into that campaign and 155,000 of your signatures later, we won! You should find paper buds on all UK supermarket shelves now, except Superdrug, who seem to have reneged on their promise to make the switch by the end of 2017.
We spent 2017 raising awareness about other single-use plastics being flushed down our toilets, from menstrual products to wet wipes. We made waves with our ‘Plastic-free periods’ film on Facebook and are piloting an unbiased menstruation education programme across schools in the Anglian Water region.
Plastic pollution is a big subject, but ultimately it’s more personal than we think. Have a watch of my TEDx talk below to hear more and find out what gave me permission to be bolder, to stand up to our supermarkets and put pressure on the government to take action. And if you’re inspired to do your bit, you can download the Refill rewards app, or sign up to our campaigns at www.citytosea.org.uk.
- WRAP, 2016. https://www.recyclenow.com/news/2016-10-17-britain-fails-recycle-16-million-plastic-bottles-every-day
- YouGov survey, commissioned by BRITA UK and Keep Britain Tidy, 2017. https://www.refill.org.uk/new-report-suggests-refill-schemes-should-be-made-available-everywhere/