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Waste/water business models in tourist areas

I spent a few days in Varkala last week - a town and coastal resort in Kerala. As with Goa, the place is absolutely beautiful but it is rapidly becoming overrun by plastic water bottles. The smell of burning plastic fills the air every morning, and the cliffs running down to the beach are covered with discarded bottles and rubbish bags with no-where to go. 

I wanted to check how many people saw this as a problem (locals generally are drinking tap/well water, so the garbage issue in these areas is primarily tourism driven), and what the key issues were so while I was there I did a survey of some of the tourists there (below).

The data is by no means robust, but it gives a very clear indicator that (a) plastic bottles are seen as a waste problem - not just by greenies such as me (b) tourists see no alternative (which is true in the most part), and (c) safety of drinking water is their priority, followed (mildly) by cost of an alternative - but this was not a big driver. (I've pasted the survey results at the bottom).

I have been using a re-fillable steel bottle while travelling the last few weeks, but trying to find outlets for water has been difficult and at times, there just hasn't been any i.e. you can only buy plastic bottles or fill from the tap - which for tourists would be largely unacceptable. But the process has made me really see the gaping opportunity that exists to provide alternative supplies of clean safe drinking water, together with re-usable bottles and create new business ventures in the process.

On discussing with a friend on he felt that the ultimate need is not to address tourist supplies of water, but rather to ensure that there is a clean free public supply of water for all. While absolutely true, I fear it is a long term goal that is a state and central gvt policy issue, and in the meanwhile, the immediate problem remains. He also tried in Varanasi with the large Bisleri bottles, but there were issues with shop keepers not refilling them, and tourists not trusting the safety of supply.
So what are the real alternatives? and what are the real barriers?
Other questions:

  • Has something like this been piloted/proposed already?

  • Is this a problem common across tourist areas elsewhere? It certainly is in Goa, Kerala and the Andamans in places I have visited.

  • What are the most interesting alternatives out there. Some I have come across are: 

  • provision of refillable steel (or other) bottles from shops in areas where safe drinking outlets (aquaguard/large water bottles) are concurrently and regularly provided (could be a private undertaking; public private partnership; or a government initiative) - apparently this has been done in the Himalayas.
  • steripens/purification tablets made more readily available along with info on their use - not sure this will fly as a sole solution.
  • Apparently in Nepal there is a system for re-filling water bottles on trekking routes by a New Zealand trekking company which provides a safe alternative to bottled water.
  • Am researching more at the moment - and trying to contact various industry providers who might be interested in piloting something new - any leads appreciated!

  • What kind of trainings on sanitation/standards would need to accompany a rollout of a different system amongst vendors to ensure standards are maintained? 

It would be great to see if it is possible to develop a model that engages those shop owners who would lose business from a drop in plastic bottle sales - for example by their selling reusable bottles/providing the drinking water themselves. From speaking with shop owners and hotel managers also - it seemed they were very interested in the idea too, and wanted to be kept in the loop of what was going on. 
As for thoughts on why a pilot in a tourist area first:
  • They are high consumers of plastic bottles
  • they typically have more expendable capital so would be more able to make choices based on issues other than cost
  • the change could be high profile with media in and outside India
  • it is possible to try pilots in tourist hotspots
  • it has co-benefits for India's tourism industry and local communities.
These are all just investigative steps - apologies it is a little rough-shod. Would be grateful for any insights or suggestions you might have on the above questions! - esp those from Goa and Kerala as to what you feel the relevance is. Just want to get a sense of what has already been done, and ideas people have.

The survey:
Number of participants in survey: 20
Age range:  17-50
Nationalities: UK, Australian, Scottish, Canadian, American, New Zealand, German, Swiss, French
Duration of stay: 3 days – 3 months
Tourist: All but two (employment)


1)      Where do you primarily get your drinking water? (could mark >1)
  • ·         Plastic bottles – 17
  • ·         Filtered water – 1
  • ·         Other – boiled from well at home (2), steripen (uses UV) (2), treated tap water (1)  - 5

2)      How many bottles of water do you drink/day:

Ave: 2

3)      In your opinion is the use of plastic bottles for drinking water a problem in Varkala?

YES - 20

NO - 0

Key comments:
  • ·         Burning of plastic smells and is toxic
  • ·         Environmentally not sustainable
  • ·         Absence of rubbish bins/recycling facility
  • ·         Currently speaking with some people interested in eradicating this issue
  • ·         The cliff is littered with plastic bottles, as is the rest of town. A friend is trying to do something but I’m not convinced local politics can be overcome.
  • ·         As in other areas of India, the bottles littering the countryside and sea shores are dangerous for wildlife and unsightly
  • ·         Too much plastic rubbish – nowhere to dispose; should be refilled
  • ·         I saw in Cochin many places where we could fill up our bottles for 5Rs/liter. This would be great in this place as we could avoid a lot of plastic bottles. Also looked for a water bottle with a filter inside and couldn’t find across India (v. surprised), and was often told the purification tablets were “out of stock”.
  • ·         Spoils the beauty of the cliffs

4)      Would you purchase a reusable water bottle from shops in Varkala if it was readily available?

  • Yes - 12
  • Yes, if it was affordable – 1 (<=300-400Rs)
  • No, I don’t want one - 6

Key comments:

  • ·         I’ve been told only bottled water is safe
  • ·         Fear of drinking bottles being tampered with
  • ·         Not sure it would be really closed
  • ·         Water bottle is not the issue, the actual water is
  • ·         I use water purification tablets
  • ·         Hygiene – how would I keep it clean and where would I fill it up?

5)      Would you purchase quality-controlled drinking water from shops and restaurants in Varkala to fill a reusable bottle/glass during your stay? (could mark more than one)

  • Only if it was at a lower price than bottled water - 4
  • Only if I was sure it was as safe as bottled water - 17
  • Only if it was free
  • Not at all – 1 (this one uses water purification tablets)

·         Great idea!

Anna da Costa


1. Responses

Hi Anna,

This is a truly fantastic idea!  It is definitely something that needs to be addressed and can be a real game changing initiative. 

Some of the things that might be worth considering are:

Tata Swach -

And also roping in the “Incredible India”  campaign:

This initiative would find a tremendous amount of support – great work !


Urvashi Devidayal

The Climate Group

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