x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Tap water catches new wave of popularity

The stainless steel orb in central London's Hyde Park is drawing visitors for more than just its design. It is the park's first new public water fountain for more than 30 years.

A new public drinking fountain in Hyde Park is part of the capital's drive against plastic bottles.
A new public drinking fountain in Hyde Park is part of the capital's drive against plastic bottles.

LONDON // The stainless steel orb in central London's Hyde Park is drawing visitors for more than just its design. It is the park's first new public water fountain for more than 30 years. "I think it is a really good idea to have fresh water because people are running and walking in the park and they need it," said Nikola Bednarova, originally from the Czech Republic, but now living in the UK. "It is definitely a good idea," agreed Dan, a visitor from Israel. "I hate having to carry bottles of water with me."

Which is exactly the thinking behind the fountain: provide fresh water so people no longer have to buy the bottled stuff, which campaigners say is expensive, un-green and the source of huge amounts of plastic waste. Mayor Boris Johnson has boasted that London's tap water is "among the best in the world" and promised to provide a series of new drinking fountains across the city's open spaces - although the Hyde Park globe is the only one to have materialised.

However, the campaign to get London to give up bottled water reaches a new level this month when the city's first two water refill stations open. The machines will refill bottles with 500ml of fresh chilled water for 20p (Dh1) - a fraction of the cost of buying a new bottle of water, and with no discarded plastic container that needs to be carried off to a landfill site. Profits will go to charity and the ultimate aim is to provide refilling machines at bus, underground and railway stations across the city.

There is also an initiative, London On Tap, dedicated to getting restaurants, bars and hotels to serve tap water. A tough task since these establishments make sizeable profits from water in bottles, which can sell for £5 or more. However, the campaign is gaining support. Hotels and restaurants have backed it, and London on Tap has produced specially designed glass carafes for serving tap water. Celebrity chef Aldo Zilli, who has three restaurants in the West End, is a convert. "My customers tell me the carafes make ordering tap water a much more civilised and environmentally-friendly experience," he said.

It is a far cry from a few years ago when, with the global economy booming and green issues ignored, fashionable diners considered it social death to order anything but fancy bottled water. But that has all changed and in central London it is almost "recession chic" to order iced tap water - doing your bit for economy as well as the environment. On top of which, people have finally woken up to the ridiculous prices they were being charged for water, a substance traditionally viewed as free in the UK (although there is a utility charge). Bottled water costs 500 times more than tap water.

One man who sounded the wake-up call is The Times restaurant critic Giles Coren. Two years ago he launched a pro-tap-water campaign. "Mineral water is a preposterous vanity," he said. "It is flown and shipped around the world, from France and Norway at best, from Japan and Fiji at worst. It is bottled in glass that is mostly thrown away and is stupidly heavy to freight, or in plastic which never, ever, decomposes.

"We were fooled into buying it because of labels that said 'pure as an alpine stream', 'bottled at the foot of a Mexican volcano' or 'cleansed for three million years beneath a Siberian glacier'. What morons we are." Needless to say, this did not make him best friends with the bottled water industry. But, by then, the industry was already losing friends. Since 2006 sales of bottled water in the UK have been falling - with a drop-off of nearly one fifth from then, according to research firm TNS Worldpanel.

At first the industry took this on the chin. After 10 years of rising sales and profits it probably thought it could afford to. But, in the face of increased campaigning, it has decided to come out fighting. Danone, one of the world's biggest bottled water producers, admits: "We've been a little bit late out of the blocks in pushing back." That may be true of the industry globally, but in the UK one water producer has more than made up for lack of speed with vitriol. In May this year the upmarket Hildon company took out a 20-page trade-magazine advert, unleashing an extraordinary attack on tap water. Its copylines included: "Q. Why does the tap water industry have to disinfect the water they deliver to your home? A. To make it safe to drink" and, "Is there anything else they're not telling us?" next to a page saying: "Cancer drugs found in tap water."

This looked like the work of a company that had snapped. And it admitted as much, saying the bottled water industry had been bombarded with "incompetent" criticism, adding: "To be honest, we at Hildon Ltd have had enough." It seems the bottled water industry has been seriously wounded by criticism. And some of the most damning has come from author Elizabeth Royte, whose 2008 book, Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It, caused serious concern at the last annual conference of the UK bottled water industry - not least because it calls bottled water "the biggest scam in marketing history".

She said the Hildon response shows the industry is on the back foot. "For a long time the bottled water companies did not feel they had to respond to criticism. But in the last year or so they have begun to take the complaints really seriously. Whenever someone impugns bottled water now, they're responding to it." She welcomes the London initiatives. "The fountain in Hyde Park is the best idea. A beautiful new fountain that people can trust should make them feel good about drinking the water," she said.

"I have mixed thoughts about the refill stations, though. I think it is a great idea, but I don't like the fact that you have to pay. I want more good water to be available for free. But as long as the refill station is cheaper than bottled water or buying sugary soft drinks it is better." * The National