Upscale Department Store Chain Bans Sales of Plastic Water Bottles

Shoppers at Selfridges in the U.K. will no longer be able to buy disposable containers of H2O.

Selfridges, London. (Photo: Scott E. Barbour/Getty Images)

Jul 14, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Thirsty shoppers at posh U.K. department store Selfridges are going to have to resort to an old-fashioned method of getting a drink: water fountains. As part of its efforts to reduce waste and ocean pollution, late last week the retailer put the kibosh on in-store sales of single-use plastic water bottles.

Selfridges normally sells 400,000 bottles of water a year at its four locations in London, Manchester, and Birmingham. Instead, the store is now selling reusable containers that customers can fill at the fountains. The change comes as a result of Project Ocean 2015, the retailer’s partnership with the Zoological Society of London and the Marine Reserves Coalition.

So, Why Should You Care? “The staggering volume of plastic entering our oceans every year is having a devastating effect on our marine wildlife, from tiny corals to great whales,” Jonathan Baillie, ZSL’s director of conservation programs, told The Guardian about the motivation behind the store’s decision to ax bottled water. It takes about 450 years for just one bottle to decompose, and according to the United Nations Environment Programme, plastic waste causes about $13 billion in damage to beaches and other marine ecosystems every year.

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The British Plastics Federation dismissed Selfridges’ decision to stop stocking bottled water, however, by noting that the store hasn’t given up on plastic entirely. Selfridges will still sell plastic bottles of other drinks, which also contributes to the world’s pollution problem. And those other drinks—particularly soda—might not be as healthy as water.

“The availability of water in portable, lightweight bottles promotes good health and can be critical in emergency situations,” Philip Law, the federation’s director general, told Packaging News. That sounds similar to the argument the International Bottled Water Association used last week to help overturn the ban on the plastic containers in more than 20 national parks in the United States.

According to Law, however, the main issue isn’t that plastic sits in landfills or floats in the oceans for hundreds of years—it’s that people don’t recycle.

“We all need to ensure that recycling rates continue to grow, and we urge people to recycle their plastic bottles and not discard them as litter. The only way we can truly tackle littering is not by indiscriminately banning products but through ongoing behavioral change programs,” he said.

Of course, that stance conveniently ignores that if there are no plastic bottles for sale, people don’t have to worry about finding a recycling bin. Unsurprisingly, the folks over at Greenpeace U.K. are on Selfridges’ side.

“The impact on wildlife, the environment, and the potential harm to human health are only now becoming abundantly clear,” Greenpeace U.K. Executive Director John Sauven told The Guardian. “The actions taken by Selfridges to raise awareness about the plastic in our oceans is a courageous step that other retailers need to urgently follow.”