National Refill Day: How businesses are uniting against single-use plastic water bottles

Since its launch in 2017, City to Sea's Refill campaign has spurred dozens of big and small businesses to offer free water bottle refills. To mark National Refill Day 2019, edie explores the impact of the campaign to date.

From small beginnings in a handful of independent shops in 2017, Refill has grown into a national campaign. Image: City to Sea/23red 

From small beginnings in a handful of independent shops in 2017, Refill has grown into a national campaign. Image: City to Sea/23red 

Founded in June 2017 after City to Sea’s own research found that the average British adult uses 150 single-use plastic water bottles annually, Refill encourages a switch to reusable bottles by making free tap water refill facilities available in “on-the-go” scenarios. This approach takes two forms – the installation of new water fountains and encouraging businesses to place Refill stickers in their branch windows to inform the public that they offer free tap water.

New data released by City to Sea today (19 June) reveals that businesses across the UK have collectively introduced 20,000 refill points, after the likes of Greggs, Pret-A-Manger, Asda and Sweaty Betty joined the campaign earlier this year. These refill points, City to Sea estimates, will have collectively been used more than 100 million times before the end of 2019.

Despite this progress, research has suggested that sales of bottled water are continuing to increase across the UK. Market analyst Kantar found that sales of bottled water topped £558m between November 2017 and November 2018 – up 7% on the prior 12-month period.

In response to the issue, City to Sea is striving help businesses host refill networks in every major town and city in England by 2021.

It is also hosting a string of events across the UK to mark National Refill Day and is hosting entirely user-generated content across its social media channels for the 24-hour period. These posts show pictures and videos of members of the public using refillable bottles, with City to Sea bolstering this action through a series of longer-lasting collaborations with influencers. The tagline for this content aims to engage consumers through a rhetorical question – “have you got the bottle to end plastic pollution?”.


The journey to a refill revolution

Some of the most popular refill points hosted under the City to Sea scheme have been installed by Network Rail, which today revealed that its station-based drinking water fountains are collectively being used more than 100,000 times every month.

Network Rail installed its first fountain at London Charing Cross in February 2018 and has since added them to 18 of its other largest stations, including Bristol Temple Meads, Birmingham New Street, Manchester Piccadilly and London King’s Cross. A further fountain will be installed at Leeds later this year as part of wider refurbishment works.

Network Rail’s chief executive Andrew Haines said that the company’s work on tackling single-use plastic water bottles in an on-the-go setting is “a great start”. Its actions on the issue have received praise from the likes of Environment Minister Therese Coffey and Rail Minister Andrew Jones.


Another key supporter of Refill in the transport space is Heathrow Airport.

City to Sea’s head of campaigns and marketing Jo Morley recently told edie that collaborating with transport hubs will be a key focus for the Refill campaign over the next two years. She explained that while people are happy to refill at work or when shopping, one of the biggest barriers to is a lack of facilities when they’re travelling.

Broader action

It’s worth noting that Refill’s initial success in 2017 was down to high uptake among the independent café sector – something which Morley has described as a precursor to an “explosion of interest” among high street food and drink chains.

Supporters in this space now include the likes of Costa, Starbucks, Bill’s, Leon, Fullers and Byron Burger.

Elsewhere on the high street, the past 12 months have seen Refill garner the support of its first department store, John Lewis, and supermarket, Asda. Other retailers to have introduced refill points under the initiatives include the likes of Neal’s Yard and Seasalt Cornwall, which is also a Refill funding partner.

This period has also seen property developer Landsec launch a similar initiative – called Refill Me – for its shopping centres. The company today revealed that the scheme is now operating across 23 of its leisure and retail sites, covering 136 brands including Caffe Nero, Lush and McDonalds. City to Sea members Pret-A-Manger and Costa are also taking part.

Overall, Landsec is aiming to roll out the scheme across its entire 17.6 sq ft retail portfolio by 2020. Malls already taking part include Trinity Leeds and Westgate, Oxford.

“At Landsec, we use our retail and leisure destinations as a platform to reduce our environmental impact and educate guests to make sustainable choices,” Landsec’s head of sustainability Caroline Hill said. “Through collaboration with our site teams and brand partners, we aim to reduce customer reliance on single-use plastic at our destinations.”

And it’s not just Landsec that has taken inspiration from the City to Sea campaign. The Mayor of London is currently trialling a similar initiative in the capital, whereby 65+ businesses and venues have pledged to offer free tap water refills in a bid to cut plastic pollution. Similarly, Global Action Plan is running a lunchbox refill scheme involving more than 100 food and drink outlets across England. Businesses in three major cities – London, Brighton and Oxford – as well as smaller towns and villages in Sussex and the North East, have signed up. 

On a national level, the Welsh Government recently unveiled its plans to become the world’s first “refill nation”, where access to free drinking water in public places is universal. Since then, the number of refill stations available to the public has increased 100-fold.

Sarah George



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