Parents for the planet: ‘By tackling the business we’d make a big difference’

Parents for the planet: ‘By tackling the business we’d make a big difference’
Gino’s Gelato co-founder Jonathan Kirwan with his wife, Joyce, and children Jenni, Sean, and Abbi at home in Greystones, Co Wicklow. Picture: Garry O’Neill

A TV documentary on the chilling realities of plastic pollution made ice-cream chain owner Jonathan Kirwan focus on more sustainability in his business, while at home it’s the little things that count, he tells Ellie O’Byrne.

Jonathan Kirwan is the co-founder of Gino’s Gelato chain of ice-cream shops. He lives in Greystones with his wife Joyce, a full-time homemaker, and their children Sean, 20, Jenni, 18, and Abbi, 12. 

Jonathan and his business partner Anthony Murphy recently committed to switching to biodegradable, compostable take-away packaging across the chain’s 21 outlets; currently, 90% of their packaging is from sustainable sources and they’re aiming for 100% by next year.

Gino’s ice-cream tubs are now made from card lined with plant-based polymers from renewable resources like corn and sugar-beet, and spoons and straws are also compostable, biodegradable and plant-based. Gino’s source organic milk for all their ice-cream production from The Village Dairy in Co Carlow.

Jonathan said: “I saw the Sky Ocean Rescue documentary and the amount of plastics washing up on beaches, and I felt it was just wrong. I realised that if we could all make a difference, it would help. We were already doing recycling at home and rinsing out our milk cartons and things, but it didn’t seem like a huge impact so I decided that by tackling the business we could make a bigger difference that way.

We sell millions of tubs and spoons a year so the change will be significant. It’s all new to us; we have about 90% done at the moment and we hope to be fully done next year. If you can help the environment, why wouldn’t you?

“The energy consumption in the business is kind of unavoidable, because obviously our product is frozen and that requires power. But we use water-cooled machines, which are plumbed in so that the hot water they produce while cooling can at least get reused as a source of hot water for cleaning and stuff. That’s the best we can do to make our power use efficient in our business.

“Everyone thinks the kids live surrounded by different ice-cream flavours all the time, and when we go anywhere, like a party or a barbeque, people say, ‘oh, did you bring some ice-cream with you?’ In reality, because all the shops make all their own ice-cream fresh, we don’t actually have a load of ice-cream around at home, and even the warehouse is just ingredients.

“Abbi is going into first year in September. She’s all excited about what we’re doing with the packaging because she’s been hearing a lot about the climate strikes and different environmental stuff in school. She was involved in the Green Schools initiative in primary school.

“Jenni’s just finished her Leaving Cert and is about to get her results; she wants to go to college to do business studies. Sean is studying engineering and has been on a J1; he was teaching at a camp in St Louis. Sean wants to follow me into the family business, but I think it might be a bit too soon, we’ll have to see.

“The girls are not really all that conscious of environmental things in their purchases, but we try to at least buy good quality; we buy things like shampoo and shower gel in l’Occitane, I don’t know how good that is? But at least we try not to go down the route of having loads of cheap detergent-based things around the place.

“Our house is A3 energy-rated and I have a hybrid car; we’re trying to be as good as we can. We have separated waste in our house, and after compost and recycling, very little goes into the mixed waste bin. We go to farmer’s markets the odd time when we can and shop more local when we can too.

“My commute every day is about eight miles into the office. I could look at cycling, but the weather can be so unpredictable, and sometimes I’m called out to one of the shops while I’m at work; I might have to travel further at short notice. We’re a two-car family; my wife drops the kids to school, but we do live close to public transport. We’re right beside the Dart, so they can use that too.

“When it comes to the environment, I think everyone needs to take ownership of these things, but that doesn’t mean that everybody is going to, and it doesn’t mean that people that don’t or can’t should be condemned. I think everyone has to do their best: you have to be honest with yourself. It’s like playing golf; you can write down whatever you want to on the card, but you know your score. People should be the same with their carbon footprint; it should be self-policing.

“There are so many places where everybody will slip, but we’re going to try our best and we need to be educated in it as well, because we’re only learning as we go along. It would be easy for me to say, ‘I don’t know anything about it so I’m not going to do anything about it,’ but it’s better to try anyway and do your best, even if you make mistakes.”

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