Emily West­brooks meets four Ir­ish women show­ing how small changes can help us live more sus­tain­ably


Each time I read an­other dire story about the per­ils of cli­mate change, I shud­der. Then I open 12 tabs in my browser search­ing for more sus­tain­able op­tions for my life – small pur­chases that might help me take a tiny chip out of the enor­mous ice­berg that is the en­vi­ron­men­tal predica­ment we find our­selves in. And then I freeze. The re­peated on­slaught of news that the planet is sink­ing un­der the weight of our dis­pos­able life­style pan­ics me; it is such an enor­mous, all-en­com­pass­ing prob­lem. How could any­thing I do make a bit of dif­fer­ence to a prob­lem so mon­u­men­tal even politi­cians can’t seem to crack it? And fur­ther­more, if I was go­ing to make a change in my daily rou­tine, how could I de­cide which waste­ful thing to change first?

Those tabs stay open on my com­puter for weeks, taunt­ing my paral­y­sis of in­de­ci­sion. I fi­nally squeeze my eyes shut and close down those full on­line carts, de­feated by the enor­mity of the prob­lem and the feel­ing that my small changes just won’t help.

It’s a process I re­peated for the guts of a year, un­til I had the good for­tune to stum­ble upon a short In­sta­gram video from Dr Tara Shine and Madeleine Murray from Change by De­grees (change­by­de­grees. com). They were stand­ing in a kitchen, ex­plain­ing how to bet­ter re­cy­cle the var­i­ous bits of waste from a typ­i­cal spaghetti bolog­nese. It was simple and achiev­able, and they were ap­proach­able and earnest. A closer look into their sus­tain­abil­ity ad­vo­cacy or­gan­i­sa­tion breathed just enough hope into me to start to crack that paral­y­sis in­ad­e­quacy and in­de­ci­sion.

“Ev­ery de­gree mat­ters. When you take ac­tion, you spread your im­pact, and that’s not to be un­der­es­ti­mated.”

Change by De­grees pro­vided just what most of us are look­ing for: con­fir­ma­tion that a sin­gle de­gree of change does, in­deed, make a dif­fer­ence, and a re­minder that cer­tain changes, like learn­ing to re­cy­cle your waste prop­erly, aren’t hard at all. The ubiq­ui­tous ad­vice to “start small” is ex­actly what Shine and Murray sug­gest. “Ev­ery de­gree mat­ters,” ex­plains Murray. “When you take that ac­tion in your life, when your mum, your sis­ter, an­other mum at an event sees you, they ask you about it, and then they take that away. You spread your im­pact, and that’s not to be un­der­es­ti­mated, that power,” adds Shine.

Dr Shine is an en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tist and Murray is a for­mer ar­chae­ol­o­gist-turned-me­dia strate­gist-turned-sus­tain­abil­ity ad­vo­cate. Their vi­sion, of course, is to help us nor­mal folk start to live more sus­tain­able life­styles, which will start to put pres­sure on gov­ern­ments to make more am­bi­tious en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­icy. “We think that if peo­ple are more in­volved in liv­ing more sus­tain­ably, they’re more likely to be sup­port­ive of the gov­ern­ment mak­ing more am­bi­tious pol­icy change.” And those two types of change are what might start to turn the cli­mate change ship around.

Shine and Murray, through their web­site and so­cial me­dia chan­nels, make eas­ily adopt­able sug­ges­tions for in­tro­duc­ing small sus­tain­able changes into your life. In­deed, they have watched house­hold de­ci­sion-mak­ers find success and quickly come back look­ing for more ad­vice. “Af­ter mak­ing a small change, we often see peo­ple who are suc­cess­ful and say, ‘Well, that wasn’t so bad; give me an­other some­thing to do.’ That’s why we roll out tip af­ter tip, be­cause peo­ple like that feel­ing of success and are ready for more.”

Pat Kane, founder of Reuzi (, an on­line shop sell­ing a range of sus­tain­able prod­ucts and of­fer­ing a host of sus­tain­able life­style sug­ges­tions, took a dif­fer­ent tack, ar­riv­ing at a less waste­ful life­style. When she had her first child, she found her­self over­whelmed by the sheer amount of rub­bish in the bin at the end of ev­ery day and de­cided to do a “house­hold rub­bish au­dit”, a process she now of­fers to clients hop­ing to re­duce their own waste.

“At the start, peo­ple were like, ‘Oh my god, she’s such a hippy.’ I’d think, no, I’m just a for­ward-think­ing per­son like ev­ery­body else.”

Her goal was to find the ar­eas they could pro­duce less waste by avoid­ing dis­pos­ables and non-re­cy­clable items, re­plac­ing them, one by one, with sus­tain­able, long-last­ing op­tions. “My start­ing point was my rou­tine. I looked at my whole rou­tine and looked at where the waste was gen­er­ated,” she said. When she re­alised that find­ing sus­tain­able re­place­ments for sin­gle-use plas­tics in her rou­tine was dis­jointed, ex­pen­sive and dif­fi­cult, she launched Reuzi to of­fer a wide range of tried and tested prod­ucts to the pub­lic.

Now she works with in­di­vid­u­als and cor­po­rate clients, teach­ing them how to re­duce waste in their daily rou­tines. She ad­vises, “Go through all of the ar­eas in your life that you be­lieve you’re gen­er­at­ing waste, and pri­ori­tise ar­eas that you find easy to change.” She cau­tions, though, “Don’t start all at once be­cause you will be frus­trated, and if you’re frus­trated, you’ll be most likely to give up.”

She sug­gests start­ing by swap­ping out dis­pos­able plas­tic wa­ter bottles for a stain­less steel op­tion you can carry with you, or in­vest in a re­us­able cup that suits your life­style – and that you can hand to a barista for your daily flat white.

Ne­ces­sity was the mother of in­ven­tion for Jen­nie Jac­ques de Cis­neros, as well; you might iden­tify with the sce­nario she found her­self in sev­eral years ago. “I just had a mo­ment one day when I was in the su­per­mar­ket, and ev­ery­thing in the trol­ley was in a plas­tic bag. I picked up one [bag] and it had a re­ally mis­lead­ing cir­cu­lar sym­bol with two ar­rows, but un­der that it said ‘not re­cy­clable’. But ev­ery­one was just putting those in the re­cy­cling!”

Then and there, she em­barked on a quest to find food pack­aged in glass or card­board, or with no pack­ag­ing at all. Frus­trat­ingly, she re­ported, “I couldn’t find any­thing I wanted, and any­thing loose was re­ally ex­pen­sive.” Out of that frus­tra­tion, Min­i­mal Waste Gro­cery (min­i­mal­waste­gro­ was born, of­fer­ing op­tions in as lit­tle pack­ag­ing as pos­si­ble.

Jac­ques de Cis­neros says the ini­tial re­ac­tion was con­fu­sion: “At the start, peo­ple were like, ‘What is this? Oh my god, she’s such a hippy.’ I’d think, no, I’m just a for­ward-think­ing per­son like ev­ery­body else.” Min­i­mal Waste Gro­cery now

“My start­ing point was my rou­tine. I looked at where the waste was gen­er­ated. Pri­ori­tise ar­eas you find easy to change.”

of­fers 200 bulk or­ganic food prod­ucts, de­liv­ered around the greater Dublin area in re­cy­clable brown bags or even pack­aged in your own con­tain­ers, and Jac­ques de Cis­neros re­ports a boom­ing trade, even from those friends who were most skep­ti­cal.

There are two keys, it seems, when it comes to crack­ing the paral­y­sis that strikes when you know you need to change your life­style, but aren’t sure where to start. The first is to keep a sense of hu­mour that will lighten the weight of the task at hand. When Jac­ques de Cis­neros told me about the ini­tial re­ac­tion to her busi­ness, I couldn’t help but laugh. “A lot of peo­ple when they think ‘min­i­mal waste’, they think I wake up in the morn­ing and suckle from the teat of my yak.” That wasn’t my first re­ac­tion, but I did think she might have been more se­ri­ous or judg­men­tal of those who haven’t yet started on this jour­ney. In fact, none of the sus­tain­abil­ity su­per­stars I spoke with dis­played an ounce of judg­ment. On the con­trary, they were up­beat, en­cour­ag­ing the smallest of changes they are con­fi­dent will start to turn the tide. “We’re all doing our best here; judge not,” says Jac­ques de Cis­neros.

The fi­nal key to mak­ing those small changes re­quires ex­tend­ing kind­ness to your­self in the process, and in the face of fail­ure or dis­pos­able plas­tic. Murray and Shine re­minded me that they are not su­per­hu­man, nor are they per­fect in their quest for a more sus­tain­able life­style: “We are two reg­u­lar girls who run into Lidl of a late evening for the din­ner, and we have stoves and we drive cars. But we re­ally want to raise aware­ness of the tiny lit­tle de­grees of change.” If the sus­tain­abil­ity gu­rus can give them­selves the grace to ap­pre­ci­ate ef­fort rather than per­fec­tion, there’s hope for the rest of us.

Madeleine Murray and Dr Tara Shine from Change by De­grees

Jen­nie Jac­ques de Cis­neros of Min­i­mal Waste Gro­cery

Pat Kane, founder of Reuzi

ABOVE AND RIGHT Just some of the prod­ucts Jen­nie Jac­ques de Cis­neros of­fers in her Min­i­mal Waste Gro­cery

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