London Mayor Seeks Revival of Public Drinking Fountains

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There was a time when skeptical old-timers derided bottled water as little more than a marketer’s trick to lure consumers into paying for a liquid that should cost next to nothing. And, equally, there were many people who asked where else they would find water when public drinking fountains had all but disappeared.

But as concerns mount over the detritus of plastics that elude recycling, London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, let it be known on Monday that he wished to redress the balance by providing more drinking fountains and bottle-filling stations while reducing the prevalence of single-use packaging.

London mayors generally seek to establish a distinctive legacy. Apart from a degree of buffoonery, Mr. Khan’s predecessor, Boris Johnson, who is now Britain’s foreign secretary, made a name in transport, introducing the Boris Bus, a distinctive update on the traditional double-decker, and the Boris Bike, a bicycle for hire on the streets of the capital.

Mr. Khan, by contrast, seems to be focusing on the environment, introducing measures intended to reduce air pollution and, now, its surfeit of plastic. But it may be some time before the city sprouts new drinking fountains.

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The mayor, according to a news release from his office, “has asked City Hall officers to examine the feasibility of a pilot community water refill scheme or other interventions.” And he “supports boroughs in identifying suitable locations for water fountains and bottle-refill stations during the planning in new or redeveloped public spaces, such as town centers, shopping malls, parks and squares.”

Photo

A Wallace Fountain in the Palais Royal gardens in Paris. CreditMiguel Medina/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

He is also seeking to persuade businesses to make tap water freely available and has written to the government to “discuss the possibility” of trying a deposit-return program as well as other measures.

Globally, plastic bottles have become an environmentalist’s nightmare, with some reports suggesting that about half of the billions of bottles in circulation are not recycled. Such is the broader concern about plastic pollutants that a British child care provider, Tops Day Nurseries, said in a blog posting last month that it was banning glitter from its nurseries because it is a microplastic that harms the environment.

But plastic bottles are in a different league.

Britain, for instance, uses 35 million every day, according to the advocacy group Recycle Now, which lamented that “nearly 16 million plastic bottles aren’t being put out for recycling.”

At the same time, though, the health authorities have questioned whether reused plastic bottles are a hazard, since they may harbor bacteria and other contaminants. And there are efforts to introduce an edible water bottle, made of a seaweed extract, that can be eaten when the water has been drunk.

Public drinking fountains, by contrast, have dwindled since their introduction in Victorian times.

In some boroughs of London and cities outside the capital, indeed, there are none, The Guardian reported on Monday. By contrast, Paris — one of London’s great rivals in the claim to metropolitan excellence — boasts a broad array of drinking fountains, including some newer ones that dispense sparkling water, and the older, but imposing, so-called Wallace Fountains created with donations from a British philanthropist, Sir Richard Wallace, in the late 19th century to provide clean water for the poor.

In 2008, Mr. Johnson, the former mayor, announced plans for a great expansion of public drinking fountains but, Mr. Khan’s office said on Monday, “several proposals for providing water fountains and bottle-refill stations were explored but there were concerns over high installation costs.”

However, there may be other factors, such as pressure from interest groups to protect retailers at train stations, for instance, who profit by selling bottled water and would not welcome the competition from free water fountains, The Guardian said.

Still, such fountains seem to have had a strong following for a long time.

The first drinking fountain in London went onstream in 1859 “against a background of a filthy River Thames full of untreated sewage, rubbish and effluent from factories, water borne cholera but, most importantly, inadequate free drinking water,” said The Drinking Fountain Association, a nonprofit group. “Within a short time it was being used daily by around 7,000 people.”

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