Going green: How to shop, eat, and drink more mindfully and minimise our impact on the planet

Katy McGuinness looks at how our eating habits have a huge impact on the environment

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Photo: Mark Condren

Photo: Getty Images

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thumbnail: Photo: Mark Condren
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Katy McGuinness

The kitchen bin is a good place to start.

Peer inside to get a sense of the impact that our eating habits are having on the planet. Most homes have a recycling bin (even if we are not all as informed as we should be about what can and cannot go into it) but the amount of actual waste - non-recyclable packaging, leftovers, peelings, food that's gone past its 'use by' date - that will go either to landfill or an incinerator is shocking.

Sweden is so good at recycling that it has to import rubbish to keep its recycling plants going - it's effectively run out of waste. Less than 1pc of household waste is sent to landfill. Think about that for a minute.

The good news is that there are plenty of ways in which we can all change our habits and learn to shop, eat and drink more mindfully, and minimise the detrimental effect that the ways we shop and eat have on our environment and the planet. In doing so, we'll eat more healthily, increase our lifespan and - hopefully - rediscover the joy in food.

Learn to cook

The best way to reduce your reliance on processed food, and to minimise the impact that your food choices are having on the environment, is to learn to cook. Anyone who can read can learn to cook simple, tasty, nutritious meals. Take a cookery class, search for recipes online or pick up a copy of Neven Maguire's Home Economics for Life: The 50 Recipes You Need to Learn (Gill, €22.99), one of the best primers that there is.

Choose home economics

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The ability and confidence to create your own meals is a life skill everyone - boys and girls - should have. If your school doesn't offer it as a subject, petition them.

How to go green with the weekly shop

Where to begin? There are so many ways in which we can all minimise the impact that our food shopping has on the environment.

The first is perhaps to reassess the frequency with which we shop. The huge weekly shop is a major contributor to food waste - even with a list and the best will in the world, there is the tendency to buy too much, and to succumb to BOGOF offers that will end up in the bin. Try pushing it out to fortnightly and supplementing with top-up visits to the local butcher, fishmonger, farmers' market, health-food store and greengrocer for local and seasonal fresh food.

Spending more of your shopping budget with local independent retailers and farmers keeps them in business, supports Irish farmers and producers, and helps make communities sustainable. If the display information isn't clear, always ask where your food comes from - lots of the loose chicken breasts in Irish butcher's shops, for example, are imported from cutting houses in Holland and may have originated anywhere in Europe.

As a general rule, the more whole foods - and the fewer highly processed foods - that you buy, the better for the environment and for your health. Highly processed foods are often imported and highly packaged, for one thing, but they also contain added sugar and chemicals that simply don't exist in whole foods, or in nature.

Very few of us buy no processed food - basics such as milk, butter and tinned tomatoes are all minimally processed - but simple changes can make a big difference. Instead of frozen chips, for instance, how about buying potatoes and Irish rapeseed oil and making wedges from scratch?

Facilitating customers to buy staples such as rice, pulses, flour and even wine from dispensers using their own re-usable containers is something that our supermarkets do not yet do, but Waitrose recently introduced this in the UK, so we will surely follow. Your local health-food store, co-op or market stall may already offer this as an option. You buy the exact quantity you need and there's no packaging waste.

Buy loose fruit and vegetables wherever possible and complain to the supermarket if these are more expensive than the packaged options. Lidl has recently introduced recycling stations at some of its Irish supermarkets - ditch the packaging in situ and make it the supermarkets' problem, not yours. That's the kind of action that focuses corporate minds.

Can I eat out and still be eco friendly?

Photo: Mark Condren

Sustainability is a big issue in the restaurant world, and smart chefs and restaurateurs know that it's increasingly important to their customers. Thom Lawson of the Lucky Tortoise in Dublin is one restaurant owner who is trying to make his new dim sum restaurant as sustainable as possible.

"Lucky Tortoise has got rid of all bottles and cans, with drinks available exclusively by tap and no bottles or cans used at any point in the chain of production. Options include still and sparkling water along with red, white and sparkling wine from WineLab and a selection of lemonades. Beer is coming soon.

"Lucky Tortoise is eradicating paper waste throughout the restaurant. Items on the menu are now displayed on a chalkboard and guests are emailed a copy of their receipt. Orders and reservations for each day are noted on a whiteboard to allow for last-minute changes without creating waste. Lightbulbs throughout the restaurant are energy-efficient, mirroring the restaurant's recent switch to Panda Power - an entirely green energy supplier. Toilet paper and napkins have also been swapped out for compostable alternatives and Lucky Tortoise's takeaway containers are also compostable. Food waste, packaging and cleaning products are next on the hit list."

Thom says he hopes that other restaurants and businesses are inspired by what he is trying to achieve.

"My approach is piecemeal but little by little we are making strides to make this city a little bit better."

Conor Spacey, culinary director of the FoodSpace work canteens, is another chef who is hot on sustainability.

"Each month I highlight an unsustainable or imported ingredient, remove it from our kitchens permanently and use an Irish alternative. Last month it was avocados, which we replaced with Irish spinach. This month our kitchens will no longer use imported olive oil and only use Irish rapeseed oil."

(You thought avocados were a good thing to eat? Turns out that one avocado can take as many as 320 litres of water to grow, and we can't grow them in Ireland, which makes your avo toast wholly unsustainable.)

The Sustainable Restaurant Association rates restaurants according to a set of criteria including use of local and seasonal produce, serving more vegetables, better meat and sustainable fish and seafood, supporting local communities, valuing natural resources and eliminating food waste. Amongst Irish restaurants with a top three-star rating is Loam in Galway.

Come to terms with the fact that cheap food comes at a price

Cheap food is cheap because it is produced as an industrial commodity. The insatiable demand from consumers for cheap food is bad for animal welfare standards, bad for farmers and food producers who don't get paid a fair price, bad for our health (look at those ingredient lists - do you even know what half of those things are?) and bad for the environment. Pay more for better-quality food, and eat less but better-quality animal protein.

Think about what you drink: natural and biodynamic wine

If you are someone who is a conscious food shopper, seeking out high quality food from small Irish producers and farmers who grow and rear organically, but is still buying industrially-produced wine, then perhaps it's time to consider the green credentials of the wine you are drinking.

Granted, wine tends to come with air miles built in, but wines from small producers who make their wines with minimal intervention - with as few sulphites and chemicals as possible - are a better choice for the environment. Not all are organic, but many are made according to biodynamic principles and traditional methods by passionate winemakers.

If you don't know the first thing about natural wine, then the best place to start learning is in your local wine shop, where you can ask for recommendations to suit your budget. Sure, you might not like every wine that you try - some can be quite funky - but you might just happen upon some that you like a lot. Some wine-drinkers claim that they don't get hangovers from natural wine - another good reason to explore them.

Ditch the palm oil

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Spend half an hour studying the labels on your favourite processed foods and you'll be surprised how many of them contain palm oil, which is directly responsible for the destruction of the rainforests, orangutans and other apes. One of the biggest offenders is Nutella - but there are palm oil-free alternatives available. Better still, learn how to make your own. It's not difficult; there are lots of recipes online.

Encourage your school to ban plastic bottles

If your school hasn't already banned plastic drink bottles, get them to do it now. Transition years, LCA students and others working on enterprise projects could look into organising a water bottle branded with the school logo.

Eat seasonal food

Some foods simply don't grow in Ireland, and it's hard to imagine a life without oranges, lemons and bananas. But we can grow lots of different fruit and vegetables here, just not all year round. Don't ask for strawberries in December, when they will have been flown in from halfway across the world - instead, eat Irish strawberries during the summer, when they taste better anyway, and ask for Irish apples when they are in season instead of imported Pink Ladies.

Take a look at your lunchbox

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The average school lunchbox contains multiple individually wrapped items, and where does the wrapping end up? In the bin. Drinks cartons come with plastic straws wrapped in film - and are usually sold in multi-packs wrapped in yet more plastic.

Sandwiches are wrapped in clingfilm, and carrot sticks in foil. Yoghurts come in plastic tubs with foil lids, and mini-cartons of raisins in cardboard, the multi-pack again wrapped in plastic.

Start by assembling all the re-usable food containers that are already in the house and matching them up with their lids. Use re-usable beeswax food wrap and compostable baking paper, and bring them home rather than put them in the bin. And ask for a compartmentalised bento box for the new term.

What does a sustainable diet look like?

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Earlier this year, the EAT-Lancet Commission reported that a 'healthy reference diet' - feeding a growing population a healthy diet while also defining sustainable food systems that will minimise damage to our planet - should be based on more vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, legumes and nuts, and less red meat, sugar and refined grains.

Does that mean we should all switch immediately to a vegan diet? Well, no. For every expert that supports the findings of the report, there's another arguing in favour of a diametrically opposed position.

The environmental and societal impact of crops such as quinoa, almonds and avocados - all feature prominently in many vegan diets - is well known. And 'meat substitutes' aimed at vegans can be highly processed and full of GM ingredients, fillers, chemical additives and preservatives. Many food writers (including myself) are suspicious of the agenda being peddled by big food companies that stand to benefit from the promotion of a vegan diet to a population that is time-poor and lacks cooking skills. Why should consumers have to accept that a food is 'healthy' just because the manufacturer says that it is?

Farmed salmon is another case in point - a different species entirely from the noble, delicious wild salmon that some of us remember from childhood - and it is produced using methods that are controversial in terms of environmental impact, even when organic.

And grass-fed, pasture-reared beef and lamb - the bulk of what is for sale in Ireland - is a premium product that's a world apart from the US factory-farming model that we've all seen in Cowspiracy.

A diet based on real, whole ingredients sourced as locally as possible and cooked from scratch is the one that makes sense to many. Think butter rather than spread, fruit rather than juice, roast chicken rather than nuggets. If you eat animal protein, make sure it's ethically reared (no caged eggs, thank you) and consider different kinds of meat such as goat, delicious and one of the most sustainable there is, as it's a by-product of the goat dairy industry.

To understand local and seasonal, visit your nearest farmers' market for a few weeks and see what's available at the local vegetable growers' stalls over that time. Shopping seasonally teaches us the pleasure of anticipation and the regret when a season is over - the first new potatoes at the start of summer, the last tomatoes at the end. Organic and biodynamic farming is the ultimate when it comes to sustainability and biodiversity - and you may be surprised to find that the price of a local, in-season organic cauliflower at the farmers' market is less than the imported one in the supermarket.