Maia Dunphy was determined to play a part in RTÉ’s Climate Week. She talks to Ailin Quinlan about the changes we can all make.
Visualise a team of scientists monitoring and analysing every single thing you do at home — from what you eat and how you dispose of garbage to how often you flush the toilet. Now imagine that this surveillance of your private family life is being broadcast to thousands of viewers throughout the country.
“These families are very brave because they’re allowing us to film their mistakes — we’re learning from their mistakes, because they’re mistakes we all make,” observes Maia Dunphy, presenter of RTÉ One’s colourful three-part series, What Planet Are You On, which begins November 12.
The programmes, which run in conjunction with the Station’s Science Week, constitute a factual reality series funded by Science Foundation Ireland which follows three Irish households tackling real, domestic challenges in the areas of water, waste, energy and food.
“In effect we’re monitoring everything they do; going through their bins and recycling, and filming everything they eat,” explains Dunphy who observes that the premise of the series is a very simple one:
Viewers get to see how the homes of the Gannon family in Tuam, County Galway, the McKevitts in Mullingar, County Westmeath and the Cullens in Finglas, Dublin, were retro-fitted with water flow meters to measure every drop of H2O used, while smart plugs and a new electricity monitoring device called a Smappee recorded every watt of electricity consumed by the households.
Household refuse bins are taken away each week to be assessed, while a team of data collectors monitors the families day and night. Essentially, every crumb of food is noted, every calorie counted and the carbon footprint of each plate of food is revealed in each show.
Each km travelled by family members is also recorded, whether on foot or by bicycle, car, train or bus. In fact, these households have nowhere to hide from the experienced eyes of four experts. Professor JJ Leahy of the Department of Chemical Sciences at the University of Limerick monitored the families’ energy use inside and outside the home for the series.
Professor Fiona Regan, Professor of Chemistry at Dublin City University and Director of the DCU Water Institute assessed their water usage. Dr Marco Springmann from the University of Oxford in the UK assessed their diets. Meanwhile Dr Brian Kelleher, of DCU’s School of Chemical Science assessed each family’s method of waste disposal and examined the correct categorisation and disposal of refuse.
Each of the three one-hour programmes features a week of household monitoring, followed by a meeting with the experts at the Tipping Floor of the Waste To Energy Plant in Dublin’s Ringsend. Here black bin bags, or refuse, are turned into energy to power 100,000 homes.
The series highlights how we can, with a few small changes, help reduce the nation’s black bin waste by up to 20%. The programme-makers took a realistic, practical approach to how ordinary families can make small changes, says Dunphy:
“What I love about the show is there’s an acceptance that we won’t all go vegan and buy electric cars tomorrow — but that we’ll think about whether we really need to leave the tumble-drier on or eat red meat every day.
“Small changes are important,” she says, adding that she learned quite a bit from the show herself: “I would have considered myself quite aware. I would’ve been aware of the need for recycling and food waste, and wouldn’t leave taps running — but I didn’t know about the impact of eating red meat and dairy.
“I’ve made small changes in my day as a result of the series; I’ve cut down red meat to a max of one day a week and I walk everywhere. “If we all make one or two small changes, we can make a difference.”
It’s hard to argue, she observes, that discussions around climate change can be very ‘big’ and involve lots of finger-wagging, particularly in the case of Ireland, which, earlier this month was taken to task by The Climate Change Performance Index, which ranked us 48th out of 56 countries. (In other words, we’re among the worst in Europe for action on climate change.)
“Ireland needs to do better. We need our government to do better and we need our retailers to do better,” says the presenter, who believes we should all now step up to the plate: “Climate change should not be left to a 16-year-old. It’s ludicrous that Greta Thunberg doesn’t feel she has the option to stay in school.
“There’s a big connection between what a person does and the level of carbon emissions, for example. “It’s easy to blame massive corporations elsewhere in the world, but in fact it’s far bigger and more widespread than that.”
Yes, influencers like governments and big companies need to make changes she acknowledges — but the rest of us have to do it as well. “If everyone made some small changes it would make a difference.
“It’s a mind-set that needs to change. We must protect what we have for the next generation and the one after that.”
And as for the three Irish families? Well, they play a blinder, declares Dunphy: “The families take on board the changes. They really embrace the challenge across the board — from parents to kids, they all did it, even though they’re juggling work, school and family and house commitments.”
What Planet Are You On begins at 7pm on Tuesday, November 12 and is also broadcast on Wednesday 13 and Thursday 14 as part of RTÉ’s Climate Change Week which coincides with its annual Science Week.