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 (reuzi.ie), 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 (minimalwastegrocery.com) 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