10 ways you really can ‘do your bit’ for sustainability

Duncan Stewart says we’re the ‘laggards of Europe’ and are not acting responsibly around emissions.

Okay, so here’s the bad news.

“Our homes are very unsustainable,” declares architect, environmentalist, and media personality Duncan Stewart.

“We’re in the top 1% of greenhouse gas emitters. We’re notching up almost double the CO2 emissions from the average home in Europe.

“Since 1990, Europe has reduced its emissions by between 20% and 30%, but Ireland’s has increased by 12%. We’re the laggards of Europe; we’re not acting responsibly,” he declares.

“Alongside this, our wildlife populations are plummeting. We’re currently down to one-third of all the species we had in 1970. 

"Insect numbers have plummeted by 75%. On top of all of this, we have also allowed our use of plastic to increase massively every year.” 

It goes without saying that we need to drastically change our habits.

“It’s less than 12 years until 2030, which is the point at which we’ll have to have our emissions reduced by 45% from 2010 levels. We need to act now in changing our consumption habits as our emissions are currently still rising,” urges Dr Claire O’Neill, a lecturer and researcher at Cork University Business School.

O’Neill is one of a number of experts who, for the past year, has been involved in a three-year research project into how food supply and food consumption in Irish households is contributing to sustainability.

In all, it’s expected that about 40 households in Ireland will participate in the €1.4m Platforms project — along with 40 households each in Italy, Germany, Norway and Sweden.

The research is funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, in collaboration with the Environmental Research Institute in UCC and research partners in four other European countries.

Through an in-depth exploration of kitchens and interviews of householders, researchers will uncover how households buy, use, store and dispose of food. 

In the meantime, says O’Neill, her research has found that it’s not enough to rely simply on consumers’ concern about environmental issues to motivate them to change their behaviour.

“Even if people claim to care about climate change or the environment in general, their behaviours in the home may contradict those views, due in part to the habitual nature of many of the behaviours we engage in day-to-day.” 

UCC lecturer Claire O’Neill says it’s not the sight of starving polar bears that encourages us to change how we do things.
UCC lecturer Claire O’Neill says it’s not the sight of starving polar bears that encourages us to change how we do things.

However, she says, moving towards facilitating green behaviour, for example through cleaner alternatives or effective waste collection, may allow progress in line with the urgency that is needed.

“My research suggests that people adapt well to generally imposed rules such as the plastic bag levy. Recognising the complexity of consumer behaviour, we need to make it necessary and easier for people to be green.” 

O’Neill has been researching Irish people’s experience of sustainability for almost a decade, and she finds that when it comes to practising sustainable consumption in terms of recycling or energy efficiency, it’s not the sight of starving polar bears or melting ice-caps that encourages us to change how we do things.

“I find people are primarily influenced by their external environment,” she says. “Their behaviour is very context-based.”

What this means is that our willingness to engage in recycling our waste or to purchase loose vegetables at the farmers’ market rather than plastic-wrapped produce at the supermarket, is often down to convenience — that is, the easy availability of recycling facilities, or easy access to a farmers market.

Another motivator is cost — initiatives which have been proven to save money can also convince many consumers to change their ways.

O’Neill and Stewart suggest that households can start doing their bit for global sustainability by taking the following steps:

1. Ditch the Disposables

Remember the slogan “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”? There’s a reason that reduce and reuse come before recycle.

A proactive way to tackle your waste is to simply refuse to use take-away coffee cups, disposable paper plates, straws, paper towels, razor blades, toothbrushes or even disposable nappies. 

Next time you’re buying fruit and vegetables try to choose as much plastic-free or loose as you can.

2. Focus on Food

Waste food continues to be an issue, with over a million tonnes of food wasted in Ireland every year. A third of it comes directly from households, says O’Neill. 

Buying less and buying loose (for example, fruit and vegetables) may allow you to lessen the waste that you may have from multipacks. Freeze food such as fish and meat so that you can defrost as you need it. 

Juicing or making soup from vegetables that are turning is a good way of reducing food waste, too. And remember, one of the most effective ways of reducing your carbon footprint is to reduce your consumption of meat. 

Try integrating a ‘Meatless Monday’ into your week.

3. Watch your Water

Did you know that an average shower dispels 10 litres of water per minute? So a 15-minute shower will use, on average, 150 litres? 

Cutting your shower time back by five minutes could save 50 litres of water. 

Imagine how much water this will save over the course of a week, a month or even a year if everyone in the household plays their part!

4. Switch your Energy

“For every €10 you spend on coal and turf, eight of it goes up the chimney,” says Stewart.

Switch to using renewable sources of energy for your open fire, such as wood logs, or even better, use an energy-efficient stove to make your fuel last longer. 

If possible, replace your open fire with a wood stove or wood pellet burner, suggests Stewart: “Open fires are 25% efficient. 

"The wood pellet burner is 85% efficient and wood stoves are about 75% efficient,” he observes.

5. Turn off the power

Plug your phone out once it has been charged, he says. Many people charge their phone during the night, which means it drains power unnecessarily. 

LED TVs are increasingly energy efficient, but don’t forget to fully turn it off as leaving any household appliance on standby could use up to 20% of the energy it uses when switched on. 

Reduce your tumble dryer use and resist re-boiling the kettle several times.

6. Trade your Transport

Use your car less. Trade a car journey to a business meeting for a Skype meeting instead. 

Trade the car trip to work for walking, biking, car-pooling, or using public transport. Buy hybrid or electric vehicles. 

Stewart also advises against buying a diesel car which, he warns, “will be banned from urban areas in a few years”.

7. Change your Cleaning

Some cleaning products may contain harmful chemicals that pollute our water, so make a switch to environmentally friendly alternatives. 

The selection and choice of eco-friendly cleaning products has expanded in recent years and they have proven to be very effective.

8. Cleanse your Care Products

Do you use facial wipes? Made from several plastics such as polyester, polyethylene and polypropylene, they’re bad for the environment. 

Using a re-usable cotton cloth is far better. 

Switch to bamboo toothbrushes and try making your own homemade face mask — there are lots of recipes online using things like oatmeal, honey, avocado, and even coffee grounds.

9. Consider a deep energy retrofit of your home

“Most houses in Ireland are exceptionally badly insulated,” says Stewart. 

“A deep energy retro-fit would include insulating the roof, walls, floors and windows to a high standard, thus reducing the energy demand of the average household by around 80%.”

It’s a very expensive project, he admits but grants of up to 50% are available.

10. HELP WILDLIFE FLOURISH IN YOUR GARDEN

Instead of using pesticides and chemicals, says Stewart, use the garden encourage wildflowers like daisies, dandelions, and cowslips.

For details of home energy grants, you can visit https://www.seai.ie/grants/home-energy-grants/

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