Rebecca Wayman

Durham is leading the way on a new water scheme that could scrap millions of plastics by 2021

People will be able to refill water bottles for free in much of England soon following the announcement of a new national scheme by the water industry today (January 25).

The launch of the new initiative comes after work by Northumbrian Water saw businesses in Durham sign up to the battle to reduce plastic waste by opening their doors to environmentally-conscious members of the public.

It’s estimated that the new scheme will cut plastic bottle use by millions each year as well as substantially increasing the availability of high-quality drinking water.

In a drive to help fight plastic waste, water companies will join forces with the Refill campaign to create a national network of high street retailers, coffee shops, businesses and local authorities offering new refill stations for the public to top-up their water bottles for free in every major city and town in England by 2021.

People will be able to use an app on their phone to find out where the nearest refill point is, or look out for special signs in shop windows.

Northumbrian Water’s chief executive, Heidi Mottram, said: “The BBC’s latest series, Blue Planet II, has brought home to everyone the devastating impact that plastic waste has on our environment, oceans and marine life, and the appetite from the public to reduce their plastic waste has grown significantly.

“Business has a responsibility to play a critical role in helping people to tackle this problem at the grass roots, reducing the use of plastics at source wherever possible.

“Northumbrian Water is committed to leading the charge on this initiative and we’re trying to make it as easy as possible for people to stay hydrated on the move.”

As well as being able to get drinking water from shops, cafes and businesses, some water companies are looking at installing new public drinking fountains and restoring some historical ones which have fallen into disuse.

The water industry was inspired to create the new initiative by the successful schemes run by the Refill campaign, which now has over 1,600 refill stations across the UK.

The first business to join the national drinking water scheme is Whitbread plc, which has pledged today to offer free drinking water for customers and passers-by in each of its 3,000 Costa Coffee and Premier Inn locations from March 2018.

Launching the new scheme, Water UK’s chief executive, Michael Roberts, commented: “As an industry with a strong focus on the environment we are passionate about tackling the problems caused by plastic bottles, which clog up rivers and drains, and pollute our seas.

“By refilling water bottles, we can all help turn this harmful tide of plastic waste. This country has some of the best drinking water in the world and we want everyone to benefit from it.”

The current Refill scheme, now happening in 13 towns and cities in England, encourages participating cafes, bars, restaurants, banks, galleries, museums and other businesses to sign up to a free app and put a sticker in their window alerting passers-by to the fact they’re welcome to fill up their bottle for free.

The first stage in delivering the nationwide scheme is for water companies to work with Refill to develop local action plans by September 2018, setting out steps they will take - working with local partners - to drive up access to drinking water locally.

This will include the number of refill stations to be available. Plans will cover specific initiatives tailored to local circumstances, which may also include projects like new outdoor drinking fountains and reusable bottles.

The next stage will be to put in place a network of community refill points and a national app to enable the public to find their nearest refill station. This will build on the Refill model of community organisers and the Refill app to ensure country-wide coverage by 2021.

The supply of public drinking water has a long history, with evidence of examples of water fountains dating back to around 3,000 BC in Mesopotamia. The drinking water fountain consisted of basins which made use of the natural spring water, a system which was originally developed in Greek and Roman times.

Vandalism, cost of upkeep, and the increasing provision of water into homes led to the decline of public drinking fountains in England, although many classic examples survive today.

However water fountains are resurfacing - Bristol, London and Hull added new ones in 2017.

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