Dr Sarah Miller is the CEO of Dublin’s Rediscovery Centre, the national centre for the Circular Economy in Ireland. She has a degree in Biotechnology and a PHD in Environmental Science in Waste Conversion Technologies.
She worked in academia and then as an environmental manager in the waste sector before founding the Rediscovery Centre, itself housed in a repurposed boiler house, in 2005.
Her husband, Dr Fergal Purcell, completed his Environmental Science PhD at the same time as her own, specialising in sustainable energy systems. He now runs an electricity supply and energy management service for businesses and communities. They live in Sandymount with their 8-year-old son, Finn Purcell.
Sarah: “We have four social enterprises at the Rediscovery Centre: Rediscover Fashion, Rediscover Furniture, Rediscover Paint, and Rediscover Cycling.
"We have an eco-centre and we deliver educational and lifestyle workshops to around 15,000 people a year. We’re very engaged in environmental education and awareness, but also policy and research related to the Circular Economy.
“For us, it’s a really good time because people are beginning to realise that the Circular Economy is the only way we’re going to survive this climate crisis. We have to start living within our means when it comes to natural resources. It’s all about living and working with the resources that we have in a more efficient way.
“Fergal has very similar values to me, and an obvious concern for the environment as well, so at home, Finn couldn’t help but be influenced by the pair of us. Finn is in third class. He gets very excited when they study anything about the environment at school; he can’t wait to tell us when he gets home and the school is very engaged and environmentally conscious when it comes to how they deliver their lessons.
“We love our holidays, but we’re very conscious of trying to lower our airmiles. Schools are closed for two months, so last summer we decided to take a longer break. Myself and Fergal have always wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands but we wanted to offset the environmental impact of some of that travel so we took a month off and looked for projects and opportunities we could apply our skills to.
“We were invited to a nature reserve in a very remote area Northwest of Quito in Ecuador. They had a 20-year-old hydro-electric plant that had been broken for a number of years and they were using a diesel generator. They were looking to see if they could reinstate the plant. We committed to travelling there and having a look to see if we could fix it, which we could.
“The journey itself was quite exciting because we had to get the bus from Quito for six hours and then trek through the rainforest for four hours. Finn rode on the back of a mule. We arrived at Los Cedros nature reserve, which is pretty basic in terms of living accommodation. We committed to spending two weeks there, but we actually got the hydroelectric plant up and running in a week.
“We cleared the intake to the hydroelectric plant and then we had to reset a lot of the cables, which were winding through the rainforest and had snapped and become damaged. Fergal had to work on the actual hydroelectric generator itself: he was pretty much in the driving seat, while Finn and I were the hired labour.
"It worked really well. It was quite physically demanding but it was a really good adventure and fantastic for the three of us. We were really away from it all. No devices, a generator that ran for about an hour in the evening so very little power, and cold water. Finn didn’t like the cold showers: there was a swimming hole about a 45-minute trek through the forest, so we’d go there to wash.
It was a very new experience, especially for Finn. It was great to spend that time with him. It’s one of the most biodiverse regions in the world and you’re just surrounded by nature. You wake up in the morning and your breath is taken away by the view; it’s absolutely stunning.
“Because we finished up early, we backpacked for a week and then went to the Galapagos Islands, which was the trip of a lifetime. The animals don’t have predators so they’re very at ease with humans. The very first day we arrived we were surrounded by sealions and iguanas and crabs; we thought we’d landed on some kind of amazing fluke day that we got to see all that, but it’s actually like that every single day.
“It’s made a huge difference to Finn’s interests; he’s been watching all the David Attenborough documentaries. Before, we’d have watched something like that and he would have had no interest. He’s also much more interested in food, where it comes from and is produced. I think all of his current questions are arising from being in an environment that was quite hidden from us in our modern lives.
“At home, we grow vegetables, often unsuccessfully I’d have to say, because we have a very small garden. But we do have growing boxes that Fergal and his friend built. We grow potatoes, courgettes, beetroot, and a lot of herbs because we use them quite a bit in cooking.
"What we don’t grow, we try to buy local and in season as well. We’re lucky that there’s the Super Natural Food Market where we live, and Lotts & Co in Beggar’s Bush have a zero-waste shop.
“In terms of cleaning products and household goods, I’m very lucky because we have an eco-store in the Rediscovery Centre with products from 45 Irish suppliers and designers. We apply environmental criteria to them and I try to use those products and apply those criteria to the house as well. I get all my refills for cleaning products and things from here.
“About three months ago we started a food plan which Finn and I do each week, and that makes a huge difference to food waste because you’re not buying excess. Everything gets used up.
We have one car, a hybrid. Fergal cycles everywhere and we try to minimise our car usage wherever possible; if I have to travel for work, I try to take the train and Finn walks a lot. When we need to change the car, I’ll probably go for a fully electric.
“There are some frightening messages out there at the moment, and we certainly try to steer away from those at the Rediscovery Centre. Education and awareness is all about giving people the tools and skills to enable them to take action, so we focus in on the facts: if we do this, this will improve.
"Finn doesn’t get anxious about the environment and he’s very much about action. We have to give people positive messages and actions they can adopt.”