In recent weeks South Dublin County Council has been installing public water drinking fountains across the city suburbs in a bid to reduce reliance on single-use plastics.

The fountains are part of the council's climate change action plan and they are planning to install 17 of them altogether.

The initiative is intended to give people the opportunity to avoid buying water in disposable plastic bottles.

"When they’re in south Dublin areas, they can bring their reusable bottle with them and just fill up as they’re doing things around the county," says Chris Galvin, Senior Engineer with South Dublin County Council (SDCC).

Single-use plastics include many disposable items such as straws, bottles, cotton buds, cutlery and polystyrene cups.

They are particularly wasteful as they are only used once before being thrown out.

"We’ve all seen over the last couple of decades the enormous change from the time where you couldn’t buy a bottle of water to where it’s on sale everywhere now," says Green Party councillor David Healy. 

"Looking at that, we say, well we have a public water system, why on earth would we be buying water in bottles for 100 times the cost and creating an enormous waste problem then to deal with?," explains Mr Healy.

Made from marine-grade steel, the fountains are designed to last up to 50 years

In 2017, Ireland generated more than 280,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

This is enough waste to fill nearly 14,000 large shipping containers. Laid end-to-end, the containers would stretch 167km from Dublin to Rosslare.

"Even though we've been releasing plastic into the environment for probably 50 or 60 years, it’s really only now that scientists are starting to do the research on what happens to it [afterwards]," says Mr Healy.

The councillor for Fingal County Council added: "We’re now realising that when it breaks down, it doesn’t actually break down into different things, it just breaks down into smaller pieces of plastic." 

These tiny fragments are known as microplastics. They have been detected in marine water, waste water, fresh water, food, air and drinking water (both bottled and tap), according to the World Health Organization.

"They end up being ingested by animals and then making their way through the [food] chain. The consequences of this aren’t clear," says Mr Healy.

"Scientists know that some chemicals attach themselves to plastic and therefore then it can serve as, sort of, a vector for delivery of contaminants into the food chain," explains Mr Healy.

Due to its slow decomposition, plastic accumulates in landfills, seas and on beaches. More than 80% of marine litter is plastics.

Public water drinking fountains are a step towards making communities more environmentally sustainable - if the plastic isn’t used in the first place, then it won’t need to be disposed of.

Last year the European Parliament voted for an EU-wide ban on single-use plastics. Under the draft plans, the ban would come into effect from 2021.

It is also intended that all plastic packaging on the EU market will be recyclable by 2030.

In September, Minister for Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton said that he would like to introduce a nationwide ban on single-use plastics.

And earlier this year, all Government departments, schools and public bodies adopted measures to use alternatives to disposable plastics.

One of the new SDCC water fountains was installed in Rathcoole village, south Dublin, recently and locals have reacted positively to its arrival.

"I'm really glad now that it’s installed. It’s something that I would definitely use when I’m going for my walks," said local woman Jenny O’Dwyer.

Another resident, Michael Broderick, said: "There should be more of them around the place. [It’s] very easy to come along then with your own plastic container and fill up."

Although another villager, Matt Lonergan, expressed fears about the potential longevity of the fountain: "I think it’s a brilliant idea, so long as it won’t be vandalised. That’s the problem with all these things." 

However, the fountains are designed from marine-grade steel, says the council, and they are designed to last up to 50 years.

They cost in the region of €6,000-7,000 and SDCC estimates the overall spend on the project will be in excess of €100,000.

If access to free drinking water reduces people buying single-use plastics, it will thereby reduce the waste sent to landfill, says Mr Galvin.

Trying to reduce the amount of landfill waste is a key element of a green economic model known as the 'circular economy’.

The circular economy aims at getting the most use out of products or materials by recycling, while at the same time cutting the amount of waste that is generated.

"What this means is that you look at an economic system where instead of extracting resources, using them and then throwing them away - that you try to recycle them, you try to reuse them," explains Mr Healy.

In Ireland, we each generate 59kg of plastic packaging waste each year - that’s enough to fill 30 shopping trolleys.

When it comes to the fountains, Mr Galvin says the system is about "managing how we use our water so that we’re reducing the amount of water in daily use".

"What we would be trying to encourage is either that it [plastic] gets recycled or potentially that it doesn’t have to get used in the first place," explains Mr Galvin.

"That’s getting us back to encouraging shops to not generate plastic packaging to begin with so that we don’t have to get into that cycle," says Mr Galvin.

"A drinking water fountain is a much more circular economy style of approaching that," adds Mr Healy. 

It’s not just SDCC that is installing the fountains, a number of other councils are also working to provide them. In Fingal, two were installed in Malahide and Howth, while Dublin City Council is planning to pilot three bottle refill stations in the city next year.

"There’s been a good bit of interest from councillors around the country and certainly Green Party councillors in other places are raising it and looking for them [water fountains].

"But I’m pretty sure we will start to see it as an inevitable and fundamental part of the public water supply that there would be drinking water fountains in urban areas," says Mr Healy.

The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government said that a circular economic approach to water is something that the EU is working towards.

"Ireland is working with other member states and the European Commission on a new drinking water directive," said a spokesperson. 

"One goal for this new directive is to improve access to water right across European Union countries, with the purpose of encouraging the drinking of tap water and the reduction of plastic waste entering the environment," added the spokesperson.

Public water fountains are not a new idea, says Mr Healy, "they’ve existed for years but they haven’t been common in Ireland and, I think, even globally they’ve tended to go out of fashion a bit".

Simple, cost-effective measures such as installing new water fountains in towns and villages now is one small step towards a greener, more sustainable country.

"I think that people have come to realise that we have a very large problem and that we really need to make an immediate start with the aspects that are easiest to address," adds Mr Healy.