Going green: how to get the whole family involved in eliminating single use plastics from the home

Pól O Conghaile shares advice in how to get the whole family involved in eliminating single use plastics from the home

Pól Ó Conghaile with his recycling which he and his family collect in separate containers at their home in Greystones, Co Wicklow. Photo: Frank McGrath

Pól O Conghaile

We've watched Planet Earth. We talk about climate change. We've bought Keep Cups and stopped using plastic straws. We have a tireless nine-year-old who keeps emerging from books and school armed with devastating facts.

"Did you know 46,000 pieces of plastic are found floating in every 2.5 square kilometres of the world's oceans?"

"What? Show me that…"

But how could we take the next step? How could we reduce and recycle smarter to reflect our growing horror at what is happening to our planet?

Like most families, we want to live more sustainably. But we are also caught up in the messy spaghetti of life. We've ticked off easy wins, such as composting food waste and ditching plastic straws. But we're aware that lots of waste slips past us by stealth - in those moments when life is running at full throttle, during weekly shops, school runs and that daily, 47-minute pressure-point when dinner needs to be made, homework checked, swim bags packed and laundry hung up before we all fly out again into evening activities.

Then… a brainwave. Why not take an hour to sit down and do a single-use plastic audit? By talking through every area of our lives, identifying the packaging and waste we generated, could we come up with ways to reduce the amount of trash in our home? We could even reward ourselves with ice cream after.

So we got out a sheet of white A3 paper. We wrote PLASTIC PATROL at the top in fat, colourful markers and drew three columns beneath - one labelled 'Item', the second 'Action' and the third 'Result'. The idea was to name the single-use plastic, chat about what we could do to reduce or avoid using it and then, a few weeks later, follow up with a note on what was working.

The first thing we noticed was the markers themselves. Plastic. This soon evolved to include biros and pens. We have a kitchen drawer full of them. I keep getting handed free branded pens at work events. Action? We would try to buy new pens and stationary only where necessary, and stop taking free junk that ended up in the bin at the next Marie Kondo moment.

There was lots of obvious stuff. Talking through our food habits, we resolved to cut right back on Ziploc bags (using tubs instead) and to replace cling film with reusable beeswax wraps. These last up to a year, we've learned, and can be composted afterwards. At the start, using them felt weird. They are sticky, not as airtight as cling film, and need to be washed in cold water. But once you make a habit, they start to feel natural. They feel right.

"We mostly stopped using wipes," Sam, that nine-year-old, reminds me.

"Sandwich bags was a big one," adds Lynnea, my wife.

We promised to buy more loose fruit and veg, to stop using silly small plastic bags for potatoes and the like, and to search out more eco-friendly products - such as fabric softeners and toilet cleaner. Soft plastic packaging is no longer accepted in our household green bin, so we've started to check everything from bread and cheese wrappers to frozen peas (it's amazing how many are "not currently recycled") and to take what we can to the bring centre.

It's not easy, but we've had small wins.

"Not with soap," I am reminded.

Well, we tried.

The bathroom was contentious. We were disheartened by the sheer volume of single-use waste here - from hair products to shower gels, beauty and skincare stuff, sanitary towels, toothbrushes… and yes, plastic soap dispensers. We've tried bars of soap, but they end up all over the sink. Now we're trying to buy refillable soap dispensers to refill with a more eco-friendly product.

Filling out the chart, we allowed ourselves the guilty pleasure of writing down some actions already taken. The kids make, rather than buy, birthday cards, for example. Some time ago, we bought reusable water bottles for everyone - not just for school and bedside drinks, but for car journeys and days out. They're part of our lives now.

Sparkling water was a surprising pinch point. As parents, we want to take positive steps towards reducing waste, but there are times where we feel a small indulgence is OK. A glass of San Pellegrino was a family treat we all enjoyed, for example, but it entailed buying a weekly six-pack.

How could we justify buying imported plastic bottles (wrapped in plastic) when perfectly good water gushes from our tap? In the end, we decided to drink it less often and buy glass bottles on alternate weeks, even though they are more expensive. We'll see.

After our Plastic Patrol, we stuck the sheet to the kitchen wall. We watched what happened as life took over. We enjoyed seeing our little chart spark conversations among visitors. Not everything worked, we didn't agree on everything, but at least we were on the same page.

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