Aqua Publica Europea met the campaigner behind 'Free Tap Water in Belgian Restaurants', a campaign which has been gaining traction in Belgium to encourage restaurants to start giving patrons the option to request tap water as their beverage, a practice not so common in the country. The interview is part of Aqua Publica Europea's upcoming report on water operators' efforts to promote tap water as drinking water - a healthy, ecological and affordable option!
INTERVIEW WITH SARAH EHRLICH
In 2019, one campaigner, Sarah Ehrlich, took it to social media and has gathered large support from citizens and achieved significant results: the list of restaurants changing their practices is constantly growing.
We met her to discuss her campaign, the motivations behind it and the perspectives.
HOW DID THE CAMPAIGN START?
The campaign started with a simple question on Facebook: who is else is annoyed with the lack of option for tap water in restaurants? Not much reaction was expected but very soon twenty messages came, then a hundred and one thousand. A dedicated page was created, someone suggested to make a google map of the restaurants that do serve tap water, and that is how the campaign was launched.
There is no money involved, no sponsorship, and the majority of the campaign is organised through Facebook with the contribution of volunteers. It was only possible because of social media and the support gathered for the topic. Whilst it started with one person, now it is the people who are doing the work: they are joining the page, tagging their restaurants and contacting them directly to ask them to change their policies.
WHAT IS THE MESSAGE?
The key message is that Belgian tap water is of excellent quality and that drinking tap water is the more sustainable option to reduce plastic pollution, even before we think about recycling it.
Still, we are not proposing to make it obligatory for restaurants to serve tap water, we are calling for restaurants to give their customers a choice: tap water should be an option amongst others. We are looking for a change in mindsets that would make it more acceptable and possible to choose tap water. A poll that was conducted on the page actually showed that 55% of people have changed their water drinking habit in the past year, so there is a change already happening.
“Belgian water is excellent”
CAN YOU TELL US MORE ABOUT THE TEAM ?
There are currently eleven volunteers working on the campaign, from different countries (France, Ireland, Croatia, Israel, Belgium, UK). They all spontaneously reached out, through Facebook, to offer their time and skills. Two volunteers from Belgium & Israel who are software developers and committed to reducing pollution have designed an app version of the Google Map. The app is free to download and was launched in June with over 4.000 downloads on Apple & Android. It is encouraging people to frequent the restaurants & cafés listed and also to nominate new ones.
DID YOU RECEIVE SUPPORT?
In addition to the community support of over 11.000 individuals on the Facebook page, Belgian water utilities have been supportive of the campaign and others groups have liked the page, although that may not necessarily imply support, such as green party politicians, mayors, Zero Waste and Plastic-Free. The publicity around the campaign and the media uptake have also helped raise awareness. Negative reactions have been very limited, with only a few HORECA representatives opposing the campaign. The head of HORECA recently said that Belgian tap water was “bad” which we pointed out as incorrect.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE IMPACT SO FAR?
As a result of the campaign, about 640 restaurants & cafés in Belgium have changed their policies and are beginning to serve tap water. One example, was the commitment of the founder of Exki, a Belgian health food chain restaurant, who implemented a free tap water policy the day after we talked to him. The café at the Science Museum in Brussels was also convinced, especially as the museum was showing an exhibit on plastic pollution.
Belgians want to have a choice between bottled and tap water, so eventually, the restaurants will have to adapt. But it is also positive for their business: you have to queue to get into restaurants that serve tap water and it is a factor that influences customers’ choices. We have also noticed that restaurants serving tap water may not results in lower profits, and a more in-depth analysis is being conducted on the topic to assess the impact.
“It creates a nice atmosphere”
WILL THE CAMPAIGN SPREAD TO OTHER COUNTRIES?
In many countries, tap water is, to some extent, available in restaurants, so the campaign would not be necessary. Still, in Luxembourg, where the situation is similar to Belgium, a person was inspired to set up the same campaign. Although they are doing it independently, the Belgian campaign provided some support by sharing existing material. Another lady was inspired to set up a sister campaign in Germany so both campaigns are using the same logo and name; Free Tap Water in Luxembourg Restaurants & Free Tap Water in German Restaurants.
WHAT ARE THE NEXT STEPS?
There are new conversations launched with other restaurants, and we are also looking to see free tap water refill machines installed in Belgian rail stations & metro stations. Brussels Airport has already agreed to install bottle refilling stations after security instead of the 1€ single-use plastic bottles. We have also conducted an initial series of questionnaires with 24 restaurants to find out how offering free tap water influences their business and we would like to extend that too. Beyond that, now that the instruments are available, we leave it up to each and everyone to reach out to restaurants to ask them to change their policies, always on a voluntary basis.
"It’s not my thing anymore, it’s all of us"
See the campaign on Facebook: Free Tap Water in Belgian Restaurants