London needs to reduce its plastic bottle use. Here’s how

What a waste. Image: Getty.

A Labour member of the London Assembly on the city’s plastic problem.

The huge amount of waste created by single-use plastics is a scourge on our capital – and the main culprit is plastic water bottles which are disposed of in their tens of millions each year. Picture this: if the 480bn plastic drinking bottles sold worldwide in 2016 were placed end to end, they would extend more than halfway to the sun.

Worryingly, if urgent action isn’t taken, Euromonitor International have predicted that this figure will rise to 583bn in the next three years. In London, the issue of plastic waste is particularly acute. Londoners consume more plastic bottled water per person than anywhere else in the UK, and last year, the Thames 21 waterways group revealed that plastic bottles make up 10 per cent of all litter found in the Thames.

However, there has been some progress this month with the mayor’s announcement of an extra £6m of funding to go towards reducing plastic waste and improving green spaces. In addition, Network Rail also confirmed plans to install water refill stations in all of its ten London termini stations, including Waterloo and King’s Cross.

One of the solutions to encourage Londoners to think again – before disposing of their plastic bottles after one use – Is to install a network of water refill stations across the capital’s public spaces. This is one of the measures that I have been campaigning for as Chair of the London Assembly Environment Committee, and it was welcome to see the mayor commit to it in his draft London Plan. A portion of the additional £6m of funding that the Mayor recently announced looks to add more public refill stations on top of the 20 originally proposed.


Earlier this month, after ruling out the possibility only months ago, Network Rail performed an abrupt U-turn and announced its intention to provide places to refill water bottles. It is now time for Transport for London (TfL) to consider how they might follow suit. The costs of installing water refill stations could well be a price worth paying when we compare it with the cost of continuing to push our environment to the brink.

However, tackling the deluge of plastic waste in our capital is not just the responsibility of the mayor and transport networks. Small businesses and entertainment venues also have a very significant part to play in ditching single use plastic cups and cutlery. I will be taking a lead on this and lobbying local businesses and venues in Merton and Wandsworth, the area that I represent, to commit to a plastic free pledge.

The facts are stark and should be enough to convince any responsible business owner to take action. Some 38.5m plastic bottles are used every day in the UK. Sadly, according to campaign group Recycle Now, only over half make it to recycling plants, while every day more than 16m are dumped into landfill, burnt or leaked into the environment and oceans.

Providing public water refill stations is an integral facet of the wider strategy to tackle the burgeoning levels of waste and pollution in London. There is a collective responsibility to clean up our streets, parks and rivers – but let’s hope that the major players who can make the biggest difference act on their pledges and don’t bottle it.

Leonie Cooper is a Labour London Assembly Member for Merton & Wandsworth, and the Labour group’s spokesperson on the environment.

Still thirsty? Check out this podcast we did on cities and water shortages.

 
 
 
 

The Adam Smith Institute thinks size doesn’t matter when housing young professionals. It’s wrong

A microhome, of sorts. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Adam Smith Institute has just published ‘Size Doesn’t Matter’, a report by Vera Kichanova, which argues that eliminating minimum space requirements for flats would help to solve the London housing crisis. The creation of so-called ‘micro-housing’ would allow those young professionals who value location over size to live inside the most economically-active areas of London, the report argues argues.

But the report’s premises are often mistaken – and its solutions sketchy and questionable.

To its credit, it does currently diagnose the roots of the housing crisis: London’s growing population isn’t matched by a growing housing stock. Kichanova is self-evidently right in stating that “those who manage to find accomodation [sic] in the UK capital have to compromise significantly on their living standards”, and that planning restrictions and the misnamed Green Belt are contributing to this growing crisis.

But the problems start on page 6, when Kichanova states that “the land in central, more densely populated areas, is also used in a highly inefficient way”, justifying this reasoning through an assertion that half of Londoners live in buildings up to two floors high. In doing so, she incorrectly equates high-rise with density: Kichanova, formerly a Libertarian Party councillor in Moscow, an extraordinarily spread-out city with more than its fair share of tall buildings, should know better.

Worse, the original source for this assertion refers to London as a whole: that means it includes the low-rise areas of outer London, rather than just the very centrally located Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the City, West End, South Bank and so forth – with which the ASI report is concerned. A leisurely bike ride from Knightsbridge to Aldgate would reveal that single or two-storey buildings are almost completely absent from those parts of London that make up the CAZ.

Kichanova also argues that a young professional would find it difficult to rent a flat in the CAZ. This is correct, as the CAZ covers extremely upmarket areas like Mayfair, Westminster, and Kensington Gardens (!), as well as slightly more affordable parts of north London, such as King’s Cross.

Yet the report leaps from that quite uncontroversial assertion to stating that living outside the CAZ means a commute of an hour or more per day. This is a strawman: it’s perfectly possible to keep your commuting time down, even living far outside of the CAZ. I live in Archway and cycle to Bloomsbury in about twenty minutes; if you lived within walking distance of Seven Sisters and worked in Victoria, you would spend much less than an hour a day on the Tube.

Kichanova supports her case by apparently misstating research by some Swiss economists, according to whom a person with an hour commute to work has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks. An hour commute to work means two hours travelling per day – by any measure a different ballpark, which as a London commuter would mean living virtually out in the Home Counties.

Having misidentified the issue, the ASI’s solution is to allow the construction of so-called micro-homes, which in the UK refers to homes with less than the nationally-mandated minimum 37m2 of floor space. Anticipating criticism, the report disparages “emotionally charged epithets like ‘rabbit holes’ and ‘shoeboxes,” in the very same paragraph which describes commuting as “spending two hours a day in a packed train with barely enough air to breath”.


The report suggests browsing Dezeen’s examples of designer micro-flats in order to rid oneself of the preconception that tiny flats need mean horrible rabbit hutches. It uses weasel words – “it largely depends on design whether a flat looks like a decent place to live in” – to escape the obvious criticism that, nice-looking or not, tiny flats are few people’s ideal of decent living. An essay in the New York Times by a dweller of a micro-flat describes the tyranny of the humble laundry basket, which looms much larger than life because of its relative enormity in the author’s tiny flat; the smell of onion which lingers for weeks after cooking a single dish.

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley has described being “appalled” after viewing a much-publicised scheme by development company U+I. In Hong Kong, already accustomed to some of the smallest micro-flats in the world, living spaces are shrinking further, leading Alice Wu to plead in an opinion column last year for the Hong Kong government to “regulate flat sizes for the sake of our mental health”.

Amusingly, the Dezeen page the ASI report urges a look at includes several examples directly contradicting its own argument. One micro-flat is 35 m2, barely under minimum space standards as they stand; another is named the Shoe Box, a title described by Dezeen as “apt”. So much for eliminating emotionally-charged epithets.

The ASI report readily admits that micro-housing is suitable only for a narrow segment of Londoners; it states that micro-housing will not become a mass phenomenon. But quite how the knock-on effects of a change in planning rules allowing for smaller flats will be managed, the report never makes clear. It is perfectly foreseeable that, rather than a niche phenomenon confined to Zone 1, these glorified student halls would become common for early-career professionals, as they have in Hong Kong, even well outside the CAZ.

There will always be a market for cheap flats, and many underpaid professionals would leap at the chance to save money on their rent, even if that doesn’t actually mean living more centrally. The reasoning implicit to the report is that young professionals would be willing to pay similar rents to normal-sized flats in Zones 2-4 in order to live in a smaller flat in Zone 1.

But the danger is that developers’ response is simply to build smaller flats outside Zone 1, with rent levels which are lower per flat but higher per square metre than under existing rules. As any private renter in London knows, it’s hardly uncommon for landlords to bend the rules in order to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their renters.

The ASI should be commended for correctly diagnosing the issues facing young professionals in London, even if the solution of living in a room not much bigger than a bed is no solution. A race to the bottom is not a desirable outcome. But to its credit, I did learn something from the report: I never knew the S in ASI stood for “Slum”.