Water of life

Let’s see more public water taps in the city, says Alex Staniforth.

I know that many councillors take part in clean-ups of parks, rivers and woodlands in the city. The residents and community groups who organise and come along to these tidy-ups are owed an enormous debt of gratitude by residents as a whole.

But you can’t attend such events for long and not become slightly depressed by the endless tide of plastic which sweeps over our open spaces. And it’s not just that it is unsightly; discarded plastic bottles and bags do serious harm to wild birds and animals. Over 38 million plastic bottles are bought in the UK every day, only half of which are recycled. The rest ends up in landfill (a cost to us all) or fills our oceans every year and with a lifespan that lasts centuries, it is a problem that will only grow if nothing changes.

The environmental costs don’t stop there. Plastic bottles are, of course, oil-based, at a time when the costs of fossil fuel extraction have never been more glaring. Then add into the equation the energy used in transporting the bottle and contents from the source to shops. It’s not a happy situation.

Let’s not forget just how recent all of this is. A couple of generations ago, while the city may not have been pristine, the sheer scale of plastic debris now seen would have been unimaginable.

The good news is that there are steps that can be taken which work. Plastic bag use has declined significantly since the introduction of charges for single use plastic bags in 2014. In the first year alone, use of such bags plummeted by 80%.

The next big challenge is to tackle plastic bottles. Back in June my Green colleague Steve Burgess argued in the Evening News for a deposit return scheme to tackle the throwaway culture for bottles. Just last week the First Minister announced support for such a scheme, as part of the programme for government, with the idea now moving towards detail design.

That would tackle some of the waste issues highlighted above but we also need to look at demand. So an idea which would work in tandem with deposit returns is public water refill facilities. In London, the Borough Market has announced that it will be providing free drinking water fountains as part of its effort to make the market plastic free. However, in Scotland, drinking water taps or fountains have all but dried up.

Now I suspect that the public appetite has withered for old-fashioned drinking fountains where we all sucked from the same upward spouting tap. But a simple tap, linked to public water supply, and of the ‘press to provide’ model, could easily be used by people passing by to fill their own bottles. A pilot could be introduced at some of our larger parks like the Meadows or Inverleith Park or in areas of high footfall like the Union Canal or Water of Leith path.

It’s an idea which has already drawn support from Greenpeace, Keep Scotland Beautiful and the Marine Conservation Society, among others. Just as has happened with branded re-usable bags, there could be interesting advertising opportunities for cities with distinctive bottles, extolling the virtues of the capital’s excellent drinking water quality.

Most health advice would say that we all need to drink more water and that, of course, comes free of charge. For Edinburgh to lead the way in making full use of its first-class public water supply would certainly be something to toast.