Supermarkets sell 1bn water bottles: campaigners call for water taps

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Plastic from bottled water is soaring, as UK supermarkets reveal they sold more than one billion plastic water bottles in 2018.

Supermarkets surveyed by the Environmental Investigation Agency and Greenpeace reported that sales of plastic water bottles increased 8.2% from the six leading supermarkets which provided year-on-year figures. None of the top 10 UK supermarkets offer water dispensers across all stores for customers to refill their own reusable bottles.

Campaigners are calling for retailers to drastically cut plastic water bottle sales and install water dispensers in store. Retailers must also force brands to offer soft drinks from refill stations so customers can refill their own bottles and help themselves. 

Juliet Phillips, ocean campaigner for  EIA, said: “Single-use water bottles might seem convenient but their impact on the environment is anything but.

“There’s untapped potential for a refill revolution in the drinks market. We urge supermarkets to work with brands to make these options available and accessible to customers across the country.” 

Fiona Nicholls, ocean plastics campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said: “Plastic bottles and caps are the top plastic items polluting our beaches, yet despite this UK supermarkets keep selling more and more of them. This has to stop.

 “Supermarkets need to get throwaway plastic water bottles off their shelves and enable customers to fill up their own bottles in store, from water or soft drinks dispensers.”

The forthcoming report, Checking out on plastics II: Breakthroughs and backtracking from supermarkets on plastics, will be published on Thursday [NOV 28]. It reveals:

  • Six supermarkets reported they sold 788.3m bottles in 2017, and eight supermarkets sold 1.04bn bottles last year. 
  • Asda and Sainsbury’s did not report how many bottles of water they sold in either year.
  • Customers at Tesco, Aldi and Lidl do not have access to water dispensers. 
  • Where other supermarkets offer taps, they’re limited to cafes or are only available in new stores.

Aldi, Iceland, Tesco and Waitrose all increased their sales of plastic water bottles between 2017 and 2018. At Iceland plastic water bottle sales increased by 20.5m, up more than a fifth.

Campaigners support the installation of refill stations for soft drinks. These could replicate those on offer in food outlets like Nando’s or Subway. The Dasani water brand is already rolling out self-service machines in the US, and some supermarkets already offer similar machines for branded coffee, such as Costa. A third option for refill stations could be in the form of soft drinks hoses, as are common in pubs.

Recycling collection rates for plastic bottles in the UK are stagnant around 59%, demonstrating the need to drastically reduce how many plastic bottles we’re making in the first place, as well as the importance of improving plastic bottle recycling. 

Former Environment Secretary Michael Gove had backed an all-inclusive deposit return scheme for bottles, but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has since distanced itself from plans for an all-in scheme. 

EIA and Greenpeace call for reduction and reuse strategies to be complemented by the introduction of an all-inclusive deposit return scheme which covers cans and bottles of all sizes and materials.