With all eyes on COP26, many of us are asking what small steps we can take to help ease our eco-anxiety. We’ve asked the experts for their top tips
It’s hard not to suffer from an eco-anxiety when reading some of the Doomsday headlines from COP26.
But don’t lose heart — there is plenty we can all do to make a small but significant difference.
“Using a KeepCup is not going to stop climate change,” Geraldine Carton from sustainability resource The Useless Projects says.
“It has to be a societal change but those small steps at a personal level make a real difference… in a way you need to find your gateway drug to sustainability. The thing that makes you engage with it and hopefully that will encourage you to become more sustainable in other areas of your life.”
So start small, know that you will get things wrong, and keep the faith.
1) Get to know your local butcher and eat your crusts
A lot of food waste comes from the weekly ‘big shop’ when we shove two-for-one ‘bargains’ in the trolley or just go into auto-pilot and repeat what we bought last time rather than making a list, and checking it twice.
“Buy less and live more,” says Elaine Butler, writer, researcher and creator of website Lightly Living. “It’s about consuming less on a daily basis.”
Studies have shown that buying less but more often and locally radically reduces food waste. Shoppers are less likely to buy excess meat from a local butcher than at a supermarket. And that is important because the average Irish household throws out between €400 and €1,000 worth of food every year.
Sometimes we don’t consider food waste as damaging as plastic but food sent to landfill does not break down. Instead it releases methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
“Instead of throwing out crusts of bread try making them into croutons for a salad, or roast vegetable peelings and turn them into crisps,” Geraldine Carton from the Useless Project says. Alternatively get a Golden Retriever to act as a live-in dustbin.
2) Make slug beer traps
Pesticides are filled with truly toxic chemicals. In addition to killing slugs and weeds, they can also contaminate soil and can kill bees, birds, fish and insects who help biodiversity.
Instead of laying down slug pellets, make a slug beer trap. For some reason the molluscs adore beer and if you fill a shallow dish with beer and leave it in your back garden, slugs will slide in, drink beer and then drown (RIP slugs).
3) Swap coconut milk for oat milk
“It’s important to think of the food miles of different produce and the carbon footprint created in their production,” Pauline McDonagh of MyWaste.ie says.
“We all know for example that avocados have a significant carbon food print. But also think of substituting plant-based milk; oat milk is produced in Ireland so it is better for the environment to have oat rather than coconut milk.”
4) Plant air humidifier
The country went through a gardening boom during lockdown and long may it continue as growing shrubs, flowers and vegetation is one of the best things you can go for the planet, and for your sleep.
The snake plant, aka ‘mother-in-law’s tongue’, is a natural air purifier and will circulate clean air around your house and make you sleep better.
Sometimes gardeners can get downhearted when their plants don’t make it. Laura Molloy, spokesperson from Waterford-based Environmental organisation Grow It Yourself, suggests opting for tough and hardy specimens that won’t wilt away.
“It’s really easy to grow peas and tomatoes — we always recommend children start with them when we go to schools,” she says. “So that can be a great place to start.” It also will cut down on your food waste, so win-win.
5) Darn your socks and visit a cobbler
As Joan Crawford once said: “Care for your clothes, like the good friends they are.”
Learning how to get longevity out of your clothes is best for the planet. So invest in quality and take good care of items. “Learn how to mend your clothes — darn socks and sew buttons so they last longer,” Geraldine Carton says.
Unless you’re a nudist, we all wear clothes and we all shop. But the important thing is to stop thinking of clothes as disposable. Organising swap shops, donating your clothes to charity, and selling items on Depop ensures they don’t end up in landfill.
If there are more treasured items that you don’t want to part with then try upcycling. Karen O’Mahony runs Rag Order, an online tailoring, alterations and upcycling service, and says upcycling clothes with sentimental attachment can breathe new life into them. Think Marge Simpson recycling her Pepto-pink vintage Chanel suit.
“Upcycling is not a cheap alternative to shopping but it makes recycling clothes an event and can turn something in the back of their wardrobe into an investment piece.”
6) Leave the plastic at the door
Be aware of packaging when shopping. Most large-chain supermarkets have in-store areas where you can dispose of plastic. This is a very handy way to get rid of waste without clogging up your own green bin at home. Also avoid purchasing gimmicky travel-sized packets of beauty products and toiletries. They may look cute but they are terrible for the planet.
7) Practise, don’t preach
It’s important to talk about the planet and how to protect it with your friends and family – but not in a preachy or moralising way. Sharing tips and tricks on where to get great second-hand baby clothes or pre-loved designer threads will help keep environmental issues at the forefront of our minds.
“Social change happens during those conversations,” Geraldine Carton says. “Just look at the marriage referendum, for example, those discussions between families and friends and groups helped make social change. The same can happen when it comes to sustainability. You want to reach everyone from the fast-fashion hunzos to mums.”
8) Draught-proof your home
One of the simplest ways to make your home more energy-efficient is to make sure it’s well insulated. There are lots of blind spots where draughts can get in — chimney flues and between floorboards. Conduct a sweep of your house and identify where the cold is getting in and then block it (with mastic sealant, nailing on rubber insulation strips, chimney balloons or heavy curtains). But always take expert advice when it comes to chimneys – blocked flues can cause a build-up of dangerous gases, so make sure you have adeqaute ventilation and your heating systems have been checked by an expert
9) No more cotton balls
While most of us are fairly conscious about sustainability and recycling when it comes to food produce, we can sometimes forget all our good habits when we leave the kitchen.
Beauty and skincare come with lots and lots of pretty packaging — some (serum and cleansers with pumps and spring valves) are harder to recycle and reuse than others. One of the simplest ways to reduce your beauty-care waste is to stop using cotton wool cleansing pads. There are loads of reusable face buffs and cleansers out there — or else use freshly-laundered muslin or cotton face cloths to clean your mug.
Also explore using different eco-friendly products — bars of soap and shampoo are preferable to liquid, for example. And find out what brands are trying to do their part for the environment — many beauty brands, including Irish skincare label Skingredients, come with refillable inserts, which makes it less disposable.
10) Plan ahead
It may sound simple but the best way to stay sustainable is spending time planning how you will spend and dispose of items.
You are more likely to end up with food waste if you race around the aisles supermarket-sweep style, dumping anything you can get your hands on into your trolley.
And take the time to go through your waste and sort it correctly. “Don’t let it build up so that you feel you’re backed into a corner. It’s best to do this when you are calm and can give it the consideration it needs,” advises Pauline McDonagh from MyWaste.ie.
11) Limit the number of city breaks
After lockdown, many of us are chomping at the bit to get away to sunnier climes. Elaine Butler recommends being discerning about your breaks.
“Going for one two-week holiday is better for the planet than doing three short breaks,” she says. “Cutting down on how many flights you take is going to make a real difference.
“If you cannot avoid the flight then it is worth offsetting the carbon emissions… but it does not undo the damage the flight do.”