Maïa Dunphy: 'When it comes to recycling, lockdown feels like we’ve gone 10 steps back'

Ahead of a new season of What Planet Are You On? starting tonight,  Maïa Dunphy shares her awe at the families taking part, gives her thoughts on post-lockdown living and hits back at those who look down on apartment living
Maïa Dunphy: 'When it comes to recycling, lockdown feels like we’ve gone 10 steps back'

What Planet Are You On? presented by Maïa Dunphy returns to RTÉ One tonight.

It’s hard to find someone more passionate about the environment than Maïa Dunphy. I spoke to the writer and broadcaster by phone ahead of the new series of What Planet Are You On? which returns tonight on RTÉ. It was filmed in recent weeks, but Maïa says you wouldn’t notice the impact of Covid-19 on their filming.

“We had all of the required safety measures in place but the viewer won’t notice any difference, unlike with many other shows - and I feel like those protocols are ruining a lot of television shows,” Maïa says.

“The families have always done their own filming at home. The only slight difference this year is Dr Marco Springman chats to them through a screen a few times. It’s very fresh, we only filmed it a few weeks ago.” 

Maïa is “so excited” about the show, adding: “It’s so nice that we can finally talk about something other than Covid on the television!” 

Like it or not, the pandemic has become everyday conversation now and while we’ve all become au fait with keeping our hands clean, Maïa points out we’ve hugely regressed when it comes to being green.

“When it comes to recycling, lockdown feels like we’ve gone 10 steps back with things like reusable coffee cups. I had just gotten a KeepCup in March and now nowhere is accepting them,” she says with a sigh.

“We have to rethink how we do things at this time, like buying reusable face masks instead of disposable ones, using biodegradable packaging for takeaways.” 

Today’s issues stem from a lack of education in Irish schools, Maïa believes. She says What Planet Are You On? will bridge that gap and make the public more aware of their environment. As Maïa points out, we’re all making the same eco-mistakes, but now we can learn from them together.

“We don’t have a strong civic-mindedness in Ireland like other countries do. I don’t remember being taught civics in school here. I went to school in France for two years and they taught civics and showed students how to respect the environment. That’s what the show is trying to do too. It’s not sanctimonious, we’re all making mistakes but we’re learning together. It shows what the families have been doing and breaks it down for viewers so we’re all learning from mistakes.” 

Another thing Maïa thinks Ireland needs more of? Apartments. I asked her about this tweet she wrote a day or so before our chat: “Doing a few interviews to promote the upcoming series of What Planet Are You On. Virtually every person I've spoken to has asked how I've coped in an apartment with a child during lockdown. What kind of hole do people think I live in?” 

When I ask about the question - not ask the question itself - Maïa waxes lyrical about the benefits of her and her son Tom's apartment life and why we need to build more apartments in our cities. I won’t lie, it sounds like bliss.

“It’s such an Irish thing. We didn’t really do the apartment thing here years ago. It’s offensive [to be asked how she coped in an apartment].

“I have a gorgeous apartment in Dublin, it has a lovely balcony. I can walk out of the building and be in Dublin city centre in five minutes. My son is such a little city boy now. I could sell my apartment and buy a huge house in the countryside but you know what, I don’t want to do that. I’ve always wanted to live in an apartment.

Maia Dunphy with son Tom, who she describes as "such a little city boy"
Maia Dunphy with son Tom, who she describes as "such a little city boy"

“I don’t know where the attitude around living in an apartment comes from, does it go back to the Famine and people’s need since to own their own land? There’s almost an attitude of looking down on people living in apartments, like calling it a ‘flat’, people saying it’ll do until you can buy a house. We actually need more apartments in Ireland, and we need well-built apartments.” 

With Dublin on her doorstep and the city’s parks as her garden, Maïa’s life sounds idyllic and it’s a perfect set-up as she tells me she loves walking everywhere rather than needing to drive or commute.

Packaging environmental responsibility as entertainment is no mean feat, but Maïa says the show does it perfectly, and it’s all thanks to four Irish families who are taking on the challenge to change the way they live and reduce their carbon footprint. It helps that the family that reduces its impact on the environment the most will win €5,000.

All it involves is 24-hour surveillance by a team of data experts, who will be counting their toilet flushes, poking through their bins and analysing their every move. Easy-peasy.

“It’s hard to strike the right balance between entertainment and science but this does it. People were so engaged with the programme last year,” she says.

“The families were amazing, they were very competitive this year - last year they all got prizes but this year it was changed to just one €5,000 prize they had to compete for and it makes for great viewing. I mean, I’d never dream of letting someone poke through my bins but they didn’t mind at all!” 

She says she much preferred their filming location this year. Last year they filmed at the Waste To Energy Plant in Ringsend, Co Dublin, Maïa said the stench there was unlike anything she’d ever experienced.

“We were in Ringsend last year and the smell there… I actually can’t describe how disgusting it was, the smell of burning plastics churning around. I could smell it in my hair for weeks after.

“It was so much nicer this year, we filmed at Bord na Móna’s former briquette factory in Littleton, Co. Tipperary. They aren’t digging in the bog there anymore, they’re restoring it for the native wildlife. They actually recycle plastic now, like the heavy duty plastic around hay bales on farms. I didn’t know before filming that those are really difficult to recycle. It all happens in this huge, 1950s, industrial-looking building.” 

Speaking of recycling, Maïa says she wasn’t aware many things she did on a normal day was damaging to the environment but, like everyone watching the show, she says she learned from it too and adapted her ways to suit.

“Before I started doing this show I didn’t understand things like emissions but now I’ve been cutting back on red meat, I try to do one meat-free day a week. I’m more careful now with sorting my own recycling and I’m cutting down on water waste. You wouldn’t believe the amount of water wasted by people who leave the tap on while they brush their teeth or people having long showers. You don’t need a 15-minute shower. We’ve been teaching kids to only stay in the shower for as long as it takes to sing your favourite song. It’s simply trying to change a habit.” 

Maïa says we've taken 10 steps back when it comes to recycling. Picture: Nick Bradshaw
Maïa says we've taken 10 steps back when it comes to recycling. Picture: Nick Bradshaw

Long showers aren’t the only habits being broken. Since lockdown began, more people have rediscovered the joys of walking and cycling. When I mention to Maïa that a friend of mine recently sold their car as they’re working from home and walking everywhere, she says she’s seeing the same reactions in Dublin.

“There are new cycle lanes after being put in since lockdown began. Two of my friends have sold their cars, one of them bought one of those Dutch bikes with the part for children to sit into for the school runs,” she says.

Unfortunately, Maïa doesn’t think lockdown has only brought out the eco-warrior within us all. She’s seen a rise in tensions as the weeks and months draw on and many people are forced to live with limited means as work dries up and businesses close.

“Lockdown was almost easier for people, it was a finite time to have to put up with a new way of living. Now people are frustrated and quick to anger. It’s understandable because there’s no real end in sight, not yet. I lost all my work for months, it was such a worrying time. 

"I’m so happy to be working again and to have this show back. I have friends who work in the arts and they’re so worried. It’s really hard to pay your rent and your bills with just the Covid payment.” 

  • What Planet Are You On? starts tonight Sunday (September 20) on RTÉ One at 6.30pm

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