The war against the use of reusable plastic has never been easy.
But since the Covid-19 pandemic struck, it has become even more complex as the drive for reuse suffers from health concerns. For example, large coffee chains such as Starbucks are currently avoiding the use of reusable coffee cups in favor of disposables.
According to them, disposables are more hygienic. How long this will last remains to be seen, after years of progress where coffee chains have offered discounts for bringing your own drinking cup.
It has made a mandrel in the side of it Refill – a campaign launched by City to Sea, an environmentally friendly non-profit company based in Bristol – founder Natalie Fee and CEO Rebecca Burgess.
Plastic fantastic: Natalie Fee (right) Refill founder and CEO Rebecca Burgess are both passionate about fighting single-use plastic
Like many organizations, they struggle to continue and have had to fire members of the team.
But even when they take themselves and their staff on leave, they try to combat the perception that disposables reduce the spread of the virus.
Rebecca says, “From what I have read, there is simply no evidence that reusable products are in any way more dangerous than disposable cups.
“I am therefore trying to get the government to change their current advice on reusable cups because it is somewhat vague.
“Starbucks and others have all stated that the lack of government advice on this has led them to choose to only offer disposables at this time.”
Rebecca says she’s also contacting the Sustainable Restaurant Association to update her advice.
What does the government say about reusable cups?
On Gov.uk, the government gives companies the freedom to allow reusable cups.
It says, “Customers may have used reusable cups or containers before when shopping or buying drinks in cafes and other retailers.
“It is up to the individual company to decide whether to allow the use of reusable cups or containers during this period.”
Pre-lockdown, Refill – through the launch of the app, partnerships and hundreds of volunteers – created a furore.
It was first founded by an environmentalist, Natalie, in 2015 after she was concerned about the amount of pollution she observed in Bristol’s Avon River.
The campaign generated enough interest to be able to obtain seed capital from Bristol Green Capital, among others, who gave the company £ 9,000, Geovation a grant of £ 11,000 and £ 350,000 a year through its partnership with Water UK.
Now about 250,000 people have downloaded the Refill app, which encourages the use of tap water over buying bottled water.
Refill’s volunteer army helped spread the messages of its campaign. Now saves sports stickers to advertise that they are happy customers come in and use their taps to refill their bottles
Refill’s initial goal was to raise awareness of the benefits of tap water and the reduction of waste from not buying bottled water, but camp profits have since evolved into other projects.
Through the app, users could find retailers who supported the plan and would like consumers to step into their stores and ask them to fill their faucet in whatever sustainable container they have in their hand.
Previously it was almost rejected in some places to ask for free tap water.
Refill points out that consumers can save hundreds of pounds simply by switching to tap water. The average cost of tap water in the UK is 0.1 p per liter.
Meanwhile, bottled water costs an average of 500 to 1,000 times more than tap water – depending on where you buy it, of course.
The campaign also highlights the pollution caused by bottled water. Plastic bottles, caps and lids are the most common disposable on beaches and rivers across Europe.
About 250,000 people have downloaded the Refill app, which encourages the use of tap water over buying bottled water
To ensure that consumers could be confident that they were getting a refill, the campaign ensured that shops and cafes joined the scheme with advertising stickers advertising the refilling of their establishments.
There are now over 30,000 service stations listed in the app in the UK and it includes major chains such as Morrisons, Costa Coffee and John Lewis.
From what I have read, there is simply no evidence that reusable products are in any way more dangerous than disposable cups
Rebecca Burgess, CEO of Refill
If the Refill campaign achieves its goals, it could save a billion plastic bottles by 2025, but the pandemic is something that has undermined many of its plans and reversed the campaign.
But their efforts have been remarkable so far.
Rebecca points out: ‘At the end of last year, we prevented 100 million bottles of water from entering circulation.
“We don’t just work with shops and businesses – Network Rail also allowed commuters to refill water fountains. It really has the impact we hoped for in 2015 when we were just getting started. ‘
Refill says it will restart its campaign with its volunteers in the fall with World Refill Day
Back to work
With perceptions changing about the use of reusable cups, it is clear that Refill will have a battle for the hearts and minds if the government has succeeded in getting people to follow guidelines.
Their efforts will be further thwarted by the reduction in financial aid. When it comes to generating funding during Covid-19 and raising awareness for the campaign, Rebecca admits support has declined.
But there are vital awareness days on the horizon, such as World Oceans Day (June 8), which require the efforts of the Refill team.
Back on track: Refill has a fight to convince large coffee chains to use reusable cups and no disposable plastic
Due to lack of funding, City to Sea has decided to fire its team to take advantage of the government support as long as it is available.
Rebecca explains, “We want to make sure we are in the best possible place as an organization for when lockdown lifts, so we can continue to do what we’re good at: preventing plastic pollution at source and driving positive change.
“The decision to leave was mainly due to the fact that new financing is so uncertain today. We see a number of grants being rerouted to support communities directly affected or delayed by Covid-19 until further notice.
“Many companies are also unable to speak to us because of competitive priorities and / or cannot continue conversations because of the uncertainty they are facing.”
But the leave scheme has other advantages. It offers the team respite and the opportunity to recharge the batteries after years of campaigning.
This, Rebecca hopes, will give them an opportunity to come back to fight.
Rebecca added, “While we would normally be sure to bring in a certain amount of new funding each year, doing this before 2020 felt increasingly risky.
“Renewing allows us to focus on getting new funding for 2021 and beyond.
“Because of our significant growth in the past two years, as a team we will make the most of our free time to think; enjoy the time with the family, into nature and enjoy as much sunshine and knowledge as possible, so that we are refreshed, revitalized and ready to improve the world in which we live. ‘
City to Sea’s war on plastic
Creating awareness about the benefits of tap water and the pollution problems created by bottled water is not the only campaign that Refill is pushing. Here are some of the other campaigns it is working on to reduce the use of single-use plastic:
Expand beyond the reusable bottle: In the fall, a three-month pilot will take place in Oxford and Bristol, where the Refill campaign started in 2015. App users in these locations can use the free Refill app to see where they have not only their reusable water bottle, but also their coffee cup, lunch box, groceries and even cleaning products and toiletries.
Nearly 70 independent cafes and companies have signed up for the pilot, including: Leon, Neal’s Yard Remedies (toiletries), Waitrose (hot drinks, food and household items), Pret (hot drinks), Morrisons (hot drinks and food) and Asda (hot drinks and food).
Rethink periods: This is a free national school program that updates periodic education in primary and secondary schools and provides information on all available products and the social and environmental context of menstruation.
Rebecca says this campaign has been a great success story. She says, “We’ve been training more than 350 teachers since lockdown – far beyond our original goals and with a great response.
“We are also working on a new content hub for our website to give people practical tips for living with less plastic.”
Essentials for small businesses
Some of the links in this article may be affiliate links. If you click on it, we may earn a small commission. That helps us to fund This Is Money and keep it free. We do not write articles to promote products. We do not allow a commercial relationship to affect our editorial independence.