A nation of wasters? How three families learned how to better tackle their trash

Is Ireland really ‘a nation of wasters’ or have we learned to recycle? With the help of three families over the Easter midterm, Ellie O’Byrne assesses how successful we are at tackling our trash problem.

CHINA used to take 95% of Irish recyclable waste but following the announcement that they were banning the import of EU recyclables from January, Ireland’s habits as a nation of wasters have been put under the spotlight: in particular, we’re the EU’s top producer of plastic waste.

From beach cleans to newly emerging Zero Waste groups to campaigns to force retailers to play their part in cutting back on packaging, Ireland is slowly waking up to its waste crisis.

Over Easter, three very different Cork families opened their homes – and their wheelie bins — to the Irish Examiner, to reveal what they’re still binning, what they’re been able to cut back, and the challenges of tackling their trash problems.

O’Dowds go all out

The O’Dowds, from Cobh, went all-out and tried a full Easter Zero Waste challenge…and they say they’re keen to keep it up.

Joanna and Enda O’Dowd have two little girls, Mila, 4, and Tara, 7.

Joanna is a full-time mum to the girls, a self-professed “treehugger,” and is also a crafter and lifestyle blogger whose interest in all things sustainable began with the birth of her first daughter. She makes all her own home-cleaning products and even sews (and sells online) her own reusable cloth sanitary towels.

So if any family was well qualified to bite the bullet and go full Zero Waste for the Easter holidays, it was the O’Dowds. Joanna & co produced just one jam jar full of clean, mixed non-recyclables over the course of the holidays, as well as a small container of recyclables.

The cardboard and foil packaging from the girls’ Easter eggs made their way into the recycling. Apart from that, Joanna’s rigorous routine and extensive knowledge of where to source every conceivable variety of loose product meant that, like in the FitzPatricks’ household, the first line of defence was in not generating the waste by making consumer choices.

Daughter Tara’s coeliac disease meant that much of what the O’Dowds generated in their non-recyclable jam jar was bread wrappers, as there are strict rules when it comes to the separation of gluten-free food items.

The two-week stint wasn’t without challenges, including sourcing milk in reusable glass.

“There’s also some plastic in my recycling from fish,” Joanna says.

“On Good Friday I had planned to get my fish in the English Market, but it was closed by the time I could get there, so I had to go to the supermarket. We went on a day trip Easter outing, and the girls wanted slush puppies so we brought our cups and then the cups wouldn’t fit under the dispensers…there were a few frustrating situations.”

Although Zero Waste isn’t an enormous stretch for Joanna, she said the experience was a wake-up call as to how much we’ve become a society of wasters since the days of our grandmothers, when everything was upcycled, reused and composted as a matter of course.

“Society isn’t made for sustainability anymore,” she says. “You really have to go out of your way. The kids being home from school made it a little more difficult to get to the farmers markets and to stick to my routine, but we managed because we made a little extra effort.”

Joanna puts her seamstress skills to good use making reusable cloth alternatives to many household and hygiene cleaning items, including napkins and even her own sanitary towels, for which she’s finding a surprising level of demand via the Etsy page where she sells her handcrafts.

Joanna and the girls spent four days with Joanna’s parents in Poland at Easter, leaving Enda to fend for himself. Although he was tempted to splash on a take-out dinner one night, he didn’t, and overall, he says he found the experience interesting, although he ended up going without milk while the ladies in his life were away.

“I don’t know if I’d survive with that level long-term,” Enda says. “Joanna has it down well with the farmer’s markets, because obviously a lot of the plastics come from convenience shopping in supermarkets. She knows where to get everything, whereas I wouldn’t have had the time to know it all as well as she does.”

“I do think men in general are more Zero Waste anyway, because they don’t consume as much. Women tend to be more the consumers and out buying clothes etcetera, but men in general seem to be happy buying less.”

Putative gender differences aside, the O’Dowds are going to continue on their path to Zero Waste, but the odd recyclable milk container may end up going in their bin when convenience demands.

Joanna’s blog: joannasfeelingcrafty.com

O’Gorman’s efforts

The O’Gormans, from Kinsale, have gotten to grips with separating their recycling with the help of new community group Plastic Free Kinsale, but working mum Gráinne says that being short on time can make it tough to cut back on waste.

Gráinne Read and Denis O’Gorman have two little girls: Evelyn, 2, and Niamh, 3½. Over the Easter holidays, they produced a 240 litre wheelie bin’s worth of recycling and less than half that amount of mixed waste.

Gráinne says the time pressures of caring for two pre-schoolers on top of working play a major role in her buying choices.

“The convenience is what you go for when you don’t have a lot of time,” she says.

“You have to buy and go.” 

Evelyn is still in nappies, which adds to the family’s mixed waste, but Gráinne has been keen to make sense of the sometimes confusing rules around what can and can’t be recycled, which she’s done with the help of videos by Kinsale’s community initiative, Plastic Free Kinsale.

“Before I would have been putting in everything, but now I know that soft plastics can’t be recycled and things like bits of toys,” she says. 

“Our recycling has slightly reduced and our mixed waste slightly increased as a result. We’ve gotten a composter and that’s reduced our waste bin as well, but then there’s the whole issue of whether we can put cooked food in there, so it’s hard to learn to manage that.” 

A lecturer in CIT, she says the Easter holidays didn’t add hugely to the family’s waste and that most of the packaging from the girls’ Easter treats found their way into the recycling. 

“You do wonder where it’s all going to go, though,” she says.

During working weeks, waste from the girls’ creche lunches comes home to roost, but Gráinne says a lot of this is recyclable too, in the form of things like yoghurt pots. The family do use reusable coffee cups and drinks containers, a move Gráinne made when she noticed the build-up of a weeks’ worth of disposable cups in her office at work.

She thinks the issue of waste is a matter of personal initiative, but also of getting more institutional changes in place: “People don’t take ownership of their own rubbish and that’s a problem, but we are trying to get supermarkets to take ownership of it too.” 

She also feels cost is a factor.

“Kinsale is quite affluent and you have to pay more for a lot of the stuff without plastics,” she says. “The smaller shops that have unpackaged fruit and veg tend to be more expensive.

“To me, the bigger things need to be looked at to make any impression on this. A massive change would need to take place to stop destroying the planet; sometimes you wonder should they just be banning plastics, everywhere.”

FitzPatricks go green

For the FitzPatricks in Carrigaline, mum Linda’s efforts towards greener living have meant the family of six has been able to wave goodbye to wheelie bin charges.

Linda and Rory FitzPatrick have four children: Zoë, 21, Susi, 18, Rory Junior, 16 and Jack, 14. 

Yet even with a family of six to cater for, Linda has cut back on domestic waste so much that she’s been able to ditch her wheelie bin collection in favour of a monthly visit to her local recycling centre.

Over the Easter holidays, the FitzPatricks produced just over two small carrier bags of mixed waste within two weeks, as well as the equivalent of one large bin-bag of cleaned, separated recycling waste and a box full of glass.

Linda’s awareness of the waste issue emerged from her long-standing involvement with CHASE, the group that has campaigned against plans for an incinerator in nearby Ringaskiddy for the past 17 years.

“We got on board with recycling very quickly and eliminated things like disposable coffee cups and bottles,” Linda says. 

“But the amount of plastic building up in recycling has just grown increasingly alarming in recent years. The issues associated with them have gotten more and more exposure: the big plastics patch in the Pacific, and all the associated social and political issues. I just thought, I don’t want to be a part of it anymore.”

Biting the bullet in January, Linda started monitoring her shopping spends and invested in a Big Pig home composter, a 270 litre behemoth which generates enough heat to tackle cooked food waste and even bones, items usually not permitted in brown waste bins.

“I always thought the convenience and the cost were the big barriers, but once I made the change I realised a lot of that was to do with a mindset,” Linda says. She also switched half of her grocery spend away from large supermarket chains to farmer’s markets, where she can bring back reusable glass milk bottles.

For meat and fish, she makes a monthly visit to Cork’s English Market, where she buys direct from craft butchers and fishmongers and freezes portions for use throughout the month. When she does visit big retailers, she makes her choices based on which items have the least packaging.

“I find I make less frequent, more organised trips to the shops,” she says. “I’m also saving on petrol.” Another big saving is not paying for a bin collection; at her local recycling centre, it’s €6 for a black binbag of mixed waste, roughly equivalent to what the FitzPatricks will produce monthly, if her Easter experiment is anything to go by.

Linda is a full-time homemaker but says there’s even a time saving through being more organised. Overall, the FitzPatricks didn’t find that their waste increased over Easter, mostly because their approach begins with cutting down on consumption.

In a household of adults and teens, Linda says getting the others on board is a challenge: “It’s very hard to change the habits of six adults. The biggest challenge is staying patient with each other while people catch up, rather than getting angry and ramming bottles down each others’ throats!”

While the youngest, Jack, shows an interest, Linda says that husband Rory’s online shopping habits pose a challenge, as do the buying habits of her daughters. “I go to Lush and get solid shampoo bars, but teenage girls like to buy their own shampoos,” she says.

“Susi is actually getting very aware of Fast Fashion, though, and is cutting back on her consumption.” Linda wants to cut back even more, especially on plastics.

But she’s worried that the Zero Waste trend is becoming an aspirational lifestyle choice, a new way for women to be domestically virtuous. She thinks it’s important to balance the responsibilities of individual consumers with those of other big culprits like supermarket chains.

“This mustn’t just become another box you’re meant to tick: you’re meant to have a tidy house, healthy food, happy children, great hair, and now be Zero Waste too?” she says. “I think we all play a part. Big companies have a massive responsibility to clean up their acts, but we have a responsibility not to buy as well.”

Top tips from our families when it comes to tackling waste

First cut back on consumption: what doesn’t come into your household won’t end up making its way to the trash.

Switch disposable coffee cups and water bottles for reusable alternatives.

Invest in a composter that can handle all your food waste.

Shop local or at farmers markets, and bring your own cloth bags/containers for loose goods. Unbleached greaseproof can be used as a wrap and composted.

Demand better from supermarkets: ask for packaging-free options at an equivalent price to packaged options.

If you’re not tempted to make your own like Joanna, try refillable household cleaning products from health food shops. You can also get refills of shampoo and conditioner, or try Lush’s solid shampoo bars.

Switch back from liquid handwash in dispensers to good old-fashioned soap.


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