Instead of trying to cover the traditional ‘three Rs’, focusing solely on minimising your consumption is the best way to embrace sustainable living
It was five years ago when Elaine Butler made the discovery that dramatically changed the course of how she and her family live their lives. She had been writing policy for an environmental political party for several years, but even with that expertise under her belt, she was shocked to discover single-use cups were, at the time, neither recyclable nor compostable.
“How did I not know this?” she recalls thinking. Butler, who lives in south Dublin with her husband and two children, began to research sustainable practices. To keep a record of her findings she began a blog, which became her website, Living Lightly in Ireland, a sustainable living guide.
Today, Butler is a writer, researcher and speaker on sustainable living. Her family now live with the goal of reducing their consumption as much as possible. “The first thing I started to look at was the amount of plastic packaging I was buying,” she says. “I got involved with the zero-waste community in Ireland, a fabulous group of people.”
Since then her priority has become reducing their consumption of meat and dairy. “Even though reducing plastic packaging is very important, I recognise there are bigger things at play. So, I will buy plant-based products in plastic, rather than meat or dairy, plastic-free, because I know the carbon savings from the plant-based products are higher.”
Butler’s family have been on what she terms a journey — a phrase she says is often used when people adopt sustainable, or zero-waste, lifestyles. “As you learn, you change. There were things I tried that were just too hard to keep up,” she says, citing the trip she would make to an out-of-the-way shop to get cheese not sold in plastic. “I ended up defaulting to the regular, plastic-wrapped cheese that we get with our supermarket shop.
“I just took a decision that ‘Right, I’m able to put my energy into this, or to this, and I’ll have to prioritise’. Things are different for people depending on their lifestyle, and their budget, and their values.”
It’s this pragmatic, compassionate approach that makes Butler’s website such an invaluable resource for anyone contemplating moving to a more sustainable way of living. Getting started can be daunting, and she provides comprehensive guides on everything from how to avoid food and kitchen waste, to how to party, clean, declutter, garden, and run a business sustainably.
Butler recalls how, in the first few months of adopting this new lifestyle, she herself became overwhelmed. “After a while I decided I’d set some principles for myself. I try to encourage people not to get lost in the weeds. You can really get stuck in the question of ‘is this better than this?’ I always say to people to prioritise reusable above everything. A zero-waste store or bulk store, if you have one near you or they deliver to you — they’re not always more expensive.”
Reusable is now the founding principle by which she lives. “I will ask myself: ‘If I’m buying this, will it reduce my overall consumption? Is it going to last longer? Am I going to be able to resell it?’”
The release of David Attenborough’s documentary Blue Planet was, she says, the game changer in the general public’s attitude to the climate crisis. “That’s when it went mainstream. When he started to say this was an issue, that’s when people started to pay attention.”
Butler’s daughter is now 13, her son, 11. The increasing popularity of sustainability has helped them with the family’s way of life. “It has become a lot easier since it’s become trendy,” she says, laughing. “I have a lot to thank Greta Thunberg for. Now they talk about sustainability more in school, and that’s really helped. I am no longer the odd parent who’s doing something really irritating and strange. I’m saving the world.”
For the entire family, buying has now become the last resort. “We’re very aware of our consumption, in every form. We do not buy things lightly. We’ve become very practised at using what we have, borrowing from people, or renting, as opposed to buying. We would always buy second hand before we buy new.
“In some situations, I feel if I’ve had to buy new, I’ve failed,” she admits, explaining that recently she had to buy summer shorts for her son on the high street, having been unable to find what she needed in charity shops. It was the first time in two years she had bought new clothes for her kids.
She acknowledges the limits of shopping in charity stores. “It would be so much easier if I could go to a shop where I know I like the style they stock, but I was still supporting a business that’s doing its best.
“If I was a fairy godmother, I would make retailers sell second hand, or pre-loved — whatever beautiful term you want to put on it — versions of their products. A little area in the corner, clearly labelled. If I buy a top in a store, I want to be able to give it back or resell it to them.
“There’s an awful lot that businesses can’t do. They’re sort of locked in systems and cycles, and I understand that. But they could take back garments and sell them second hand — that’s within the remit of an awful lot of businesses.”
What happens to your goods when you are finished with them is another major focus. The phrase ‘get rid of’ is banned in their house; instead, they talk about ‘rehoming’ items. “People would be shocked by how little is recyclable, but also how little is recycled, because there’s no market for it.”
As such, she has adopted a different approach to dealing with goods they are no longer using. “If I’ve bought it, I’m responsible for it, and I must do my damnedest to make sure it gets into the hands of somebody who will use it.
“I only donate items in perfect condition to charity shops, as this is the only stuff that sells reliably. I wonder if the ease of dropping a bag of unwanted items into the charity shop just encourages us to keep consuming at an unsustainable rate.
“It is possible to find a new home for everything,” Butler adds. For more information, see the list on her website for where to donate, recycle and find new homes for items.
The circular economy is our future, she says firmly. “It is about keeping materials in use for as long as possible, and recycling them back into the manufacturing process so you have no waste at the end of it. When that comes on stream — which has to happen, as we don’t have any alternative — one of the principles is designing out waste. The idea is you don’t have the waste in the first place.”
Being so attuned to the immediacy of the peril we are in must be stressful? “Yeah, absolutely. I met a friend for coffee today, and the cafe didn’t take reusable cups. I’ll be on to them — in a nice way. I don’t shame companies online because I try to focus on positivity. [I have] a private conversation, and then I tend to promote the good work people are doing. If things are negative, people turn away.”
That said, small changes like what kind of cup you drink from are nowhere near enough. “They can be very good to get you started, but you have to think: does this reduce consumption overall? Or is it just a less bad form of consumption?”
Butler publishes a regular newsletter; a list of positive changes happening in the world. “It shows me there are a lot of people doing a lot of good stuff. When I look around my immediate locality, it is depressing. I hear parents saying, ‘Oh sure the kids are great, it’s all going to be fixed by the kids, they’re so tuned into this’. I just feel like saying, ‘We do not have time to wait for the kids’.
“I know there’s a lot we can’t do as individuals. Like if you need a car, I understand that,” says Butler, whose family drive an electric car. “But there’s an awful lot of stuff people are doing that they do have control over. I don’t see urgency in people. I think that’s because I don’t see urgency in the leaders of our country and other countries.
“So I’m not really blaming people. But it is really frustrating. You know what? It’s not frustrating, it’s worrying. I’m worried. I’m worried the worsening climate crisis will make it impossible for my kids to have their own kids. I think we’re going to have serious conversations like that over the next few decades.
“I see so little traction where I live. People just aren’t getting it, and I understand why. The leaders in our society aren’t signalling this is a concern. The existence of humanity is threatened. It is unlikely humans will exist on this planet to any great degree unless we change.”
Politicians will only make the changes needed in response to momentum from the electorate. “It’s a tough one, because it’s not immediate. People don’t have the time to worry about something that’s not immediate. But it’s going to be here before we know it. ”
An unexpected benefit of her immersion in sustainable living is what keeps her from becoming overwhelmed by anxiety: the network she has formed in the past five years.“I surround myself with people who think like me and limit my exposure to people who don’t. I know that sounds very much like I’m putting myself in a silo. But when you’re this worried about the future of the planet, you just have to do that.
"What surprised me when I started doing this was that I developed a community of people who think like this. That has been so life-enhancing. By borrowing things from people who I might have met on Instagram and through freecycle pages, you develop friendships.You share things; they might have a skill in something you don’t have, and vice versa.
“I would also try and buy fruit and veg in a local farmers’ market or greengrocer. I know the owners, and I know the farmer that grows some of the food that I buy. Knowing the people who grow your food... I am bowled over by how much richer my life feels by having those connections,” Butler says, smiling. “Those connections have been the greatest reward of the sustainability journey we’ve been on.”
Where do I start?
Elaine Butler says to focus on reducing consumption in every way you can. It could be turning off devices when they are charging, turning off the Wi-Fi when you go to bed. It could be having a shorter shower. Get into a mindset of ‘how do I reduce consumption?’ The more you practice it, the easier it becomes.
Butler also recommends prioritising plant-based food. The carbon emissions from meat and dairy – even though the way we produce meat and dairy in Ireland is one of the most sustainable ways it is done globally – still don’t compare to plants.
You don’t have to go vegan, just try and tip the balance toward plant-based food – locally grown, seasonal and organic if possible.