When out and about, thirsty people everywhere reach for convenient, disposable plastic bottles.
The ubiquitous plastic bottle has become a symbol and prime expression of our throwaway consumer culture. After its contents are consumed, and thirst is assuaged, the plastic bottle lives on to litter our streets, overflow our public bins and finally, pollute and clog up our oceans and poison marine life. Though a portion of this waste does reach recycling centers (in London only about 32%) this is but a bandaid on a massive environmental challenge.
In recent years the growing popularity of reusable water bottles has helped many people reduce their dependence on this master polluter. Instead of constantly buying new disposable bottles, hip busy urbanites can just refill their personal bottles at home, the office, or at public fountains. An average Londoner using a reusable bottle can spare the environment about 175 single-use bottles, save himself some cash, and feel smug about doing the right thing to boot.
However, this change in consumer behaviour is still marginal. The vast majority of people continue to rely on plastic water bottles and their unfailing availability around our cities.
What is preventing a cultural shift from single-use bottles to refillables?
Though refillable bottles are an attractive alternative, they are still not as convenient as single-use bottles. Mainly, places to refill bottles are not as plentiful as places to buy single-use bottles. If making environmentally conscious decisions requires significantly more effort, only the ideologically motivated will tend to make them. In order to encourage more people to opt for refillables, we need to make it more convenient to use them.
Venues across London are already trying to become refillable oriented. Field research which included interviews with sustainability officers at venues such as The Natural History Museum, Lord’s Cricket Ground, and King’s College London, uncovered the following obstacles:
1. Costly Infrastructure
Many venues lack sufficient refill infrastructure - their fountains are either few and far between, not easily accessible, or not fit for purpose. For example, some fountains’ design might allow for drinking from the tap but not for refilling a water bottle. However, installing new fountains requires a financial investment that is not always available.
The gaps in infrastructure are exacerbated by existing fountains being installed in out of the way places where they are very easy to miss. This means often only the truly determined know their whereabouts and use them.
3. Context Constraints
Differnt venues have different needs and require context specific solutions. The Natural History Museum is a grade I listed building and cannot take changes easily. Lord’s Cricket Ground has massive crowds that often move together according to games’ progression.
Tap water has a bad reputation. In contrast to mineral water companies’ vast advertising budgets, tap water has no one selling the public on its merits. Though some tourists might be understandably wary of tap water if it is unsafe in their home country, tap water in the UK is strictly monitored. Furthermore, it has to adhere to a standard of regulation which mineral water doesn’t.
5. Revenue Streams
Some venues might have a reliance on the steady revenue stream generated from plastic water bottle sales. In such cases, even if they are motivated to reduce plastic waste, their agenda might be conflicted.
Considering these obstacles,
How might we leverage existing infrastructure to design immediate, context specific, and financially viable solutions?
Water Monsters are mobile drinking fountains designed for a range of urban venues and outdoor environments. They are an immediate and economical alternative to the installation of costly stationary fountains. The Monsters collect drinking water from existing fountains and taps, which they can later dispense to thirsty people on their route. For a small fee, the Monsters offer a choice of flavours and herbs to add to the water. This serves both to replace the current revenue venues make from bottled water and to increase desirability for customers.
Beyond hydrating the capital, Water Monsters function as a living campaign to engage people, ease stigma around tap water and normalize refill culture.
With Anna Schlimm, Will Fazackerley and Victor Strimfors