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Brits Are Too Embarrassed to Ask for Tap Water in Restaurants

And it’s creating a huge plastic bottle waste problem, warns a new report from environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy.

Phoebe Hurst

Phoebe Hurst

Photo via Flickr user Carsten ten Brink

British politeness is a national stereotype as worn as Dame Maggie Smith's forehead. It's mildly annoying when attempting to walk through a door at the same time as someone else ("No, really, after YOU"), but is there actually any real-world harm in bumbling good manners—aside from Richard Curtis movies and the Very British Problems Twitter account?

According to a new YouGov survey, there is, and it's a pretty big one. Socially embarrassed Britons are harming the environment.

Commissioned by environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy and filter jug manufacturers Brita UK, the survey shows that Brits' are reluctant to ask for tap water in restaurants or request refills of empty water bottles. This, says the charity, is adding to the huge number of single-use plastic bottles that get bought and discarded every year.

The law states that all licensed premises in England, Scotland, and Wales—including restaurants, bars, pubs, and theatres—must provide drinking water on request, although they can charge for the glass. However the YouGov survey shows that only a quarter of people know that they are legally able to request free water at these establishments.

Not that this understanding of hospitality industry law would do much good. Seventy-one percent of respondents said that they felt awkward when asking for free tap water in a restaurant or bar without making another purchase. Similarly, more than a third said that they were uncomfortable asking for tap water in a reusable bottle, even if they were buying something else.

This preference for buying new plastic bottles, rather than requesting a refill, is bad news for the environment. According to the Marine Conservation Society, it takes 162 grams of oil and seven litres of water to manufacture a single one-litre disposable bottle. Around 7.7 billion plastic bottles are used in the UK every year and not all are recycled, which leads to marine damage and extra landfill.

In a report accompanying the survey, Keep Britain Tidy recommended that cities establish community water schemes like the one already in place in Bristol, which has implemented over 200 water refill stations across the city centre.

Indeed, the responses of those surveyed by YouGov suggest that schemes like this do work. Nearly 60 percent said that they would be more likely to use a reusable bottle if water refills were available in places like shops, parks, and airports.

Speaking to the Guardian on the survey results, Keep Britain Tidy chief executive Allison Ogden-Newton said: "This report demonstrates that the British public want greater access to tap water when out and about. Topping up a glass or refillable bottle would encourage us to stay healthy while helping to reduce littering in our streets, parks, and beaches, which is all good."

Let's hope that the demands for tap water in restaurants start trickling in.