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'We cannot keep them on the shelves' - Zero waste movement is changing the way we shop in Ireland


The Twig Refill station in Clonakilty in Co Cork.

The Twig Refill station in Clonakilty in Co Cork.

The Twig Refill station in Clonakilty in Co Cork.

“Someone came in the other day with her empty wine bottle and filled it up with shampoo and conditioner,” says shopkeeper Olive Finn.

Finn is one of the many grocers around the country tapping into, and facilitating, the idea that a consumer can shop without incurring any waste.

The zero waste, or minimal waste, movement is growing with aplomb in Ireland. Consumers are saying “no” to packaging. They enter a shop with their own empty containers and leave the shop, having filled those containers with the goods they need.

No more plastic bags when buying meat. No more shampoo or shower gel bottles. No more cling film or tin foil. No more disposable nappies, and even, no more disposable sanitary towels (washable cloth options and moon cups are gaining attention).

Instead, a refill method where customers fill up their own containers with whatever they need and pay by weight.

So how is this done?

In 2016, French mother-of-two Bea Johnson published her revolutionary book “Zero Waste Home” showing how her family accrued as little as a one-litre-jar full of waste in one year.

Her modus operandi was, and is, to refuse, reuse, and recycle. Refuse junk mail and plastic spoons and forks in takeaways; reuse any containers or jars you already have; and recycle everything that can possibly be recycled.

Keep cups, stainless steel straws and lunch boxes, bamboo toothbrushes, homemade deodorants, homemade cleaning products (bread soda is a thing of many uses), and reusable sanitary pads and reusable nappies all are espoused.

“Beeswax wraps which you use instead of cling film - we cannot keep them on the shelves. They’re flying out the door,” Finn explains.


Timi Nicholson with the jars she buys and stores her grains and flours in.

Timi Nicholson with the jars she buys and stores her grains and flours in.

Timi Nicholson with the jars she buys and stores her grains and flours in.

Dublin shops like the Small Changes Wholefoods store, Minimal Waste Grocery, and Cork shops like the Twig Refill station and Organico (which will open an isolated zero waste shop before Christmas), and farmer’s and country markets across the country, are a small example of zero-waste-friendly shops. Facebook groups like Zero Waste Ireland, Zero Waste Baby/Children Freecycle Ireland are forums where encouragement and support is offered to newcomers to the zero waste idea.

Timi Nicholson, a mother-of-two who lives in Dublin and runs the @Simple.NoWaste.Life Instagram page, says her family produces less than 200 grams of landfill-bound waste every month. They estimate they’ve saved hundreds of euros just on bin charges alone. They no longer subscribe to a bin service.

“It took us about nine months to be able to come down to a level where we decided to unsubscribe to the organised waste bin service.”

“We used to put out the bin once every two months. That wasn’t that much anyway. But now we produce approximately 200 grams of landfill waste a month. On better months we do about 150 grams.”

She added: “We looked at our grocery shopping and decided that we were only going to buy loose vegetables. I was looking for where I could buy meat, fish and cheese without packaging. That was one of the biggest challenges. There were a few awkward moments.”

“I had to write to one of the big supermarkets saying that I would like to do this. And they said ‘no’, you’re not bringing your own glass into our shop. I said ‘I understand you think there is a health hazard, but I’m willing to take the hazard, but they said ‘no way'.”

“The local Polish shop would sell all the ham and cheese that we need, and I told the owner I want to save you money by not using any cling film and they were fine with that.”

“I went to a butcher and they didn’t mind me bringing my own container, even though they looked at me [oddly] at the start, and now they say ‘oh the green lady is here’.”

Olive Finn explains to her customers that they shouldn't expect to shop with the same speed if they're trying their hand at minimal or zero waste.

“It’s slow-motion shopping, that’s what we’re telling people."

“The first week we opened, people were saying what do I do? How do I do it? You can bring in your old shampoo bottles and refill it with non-chemical shampoo.”

"You can come in here and get unbleached cotton bags called the Twig bags and fill those, so then there’s no need to have to carry big jars full of lentils and nuts out of the shop.”


The Twig Refill station in Clonakilty in Co Cork.

The Twig Refill station in Clonakilty in Co Cork.

The Twig Refill station in Clonakilty in Co Cork.

Jennie Jacques-De-Cisneros from Minimal Waste Grocery in St Anne's Park, Dublin tells Independent.ie: “When we started last year, apart from zero-wasters as you might call them, people would ask ‘oh what’s this about?’ and we’d say ‘you just buy what you need and bring in your own containers, and there’s no plastic’. Their eyes would be glazing over thinking ‘who is this hippy?’, and they’d back away.”

But she added: “The change has been unbelievable. I really think that Blue Planet II has turned it around. People are really interested in reducing plastic. Now [the demand is] night and day. It’s unreal.”

Hannah Dare from Organico in Bantry is hoping to have her zero waste shop open by Christmas.

“I’m examining every single aspect of what we do. It’s very challenging. I’ve real admiration for people who can come in with a small bag and say this has been our waste for the last two months.”

“A lot of it is resisting buying things first of all. We’re so programmed to just buy and not even think.”

She added: “The biggest challenge for me is parenting. Trying to minimise waste as a family, it’s just challenging. I used cloth nappies when my children were small.”

“The amount of waste you generate as a parent is quite shocking. I try to reuse bags and reuse paper bags by putting them back into the shopping bags again.”

“We’re not buying any more shower gels in plastic bottles. Soap is absolutely fine. We have the shampoo bars, the next thing I’d like to stock is really nice tasting [zero-waste-friendly] toothpaste.”

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