In Make A Difference, Bridget Ginnity explores how we can control our consumerism and waste generation
STUFF. We are surrounded by it. Or are you an exception? Maybe your personal style is minimalist, with a single ornament against all white walls.
Or perhaps you did a Marie Kondo in the past year and asked yourself what sparked joy in your home, and chucked out the rest.
But for many of us, our shelves are cluttered, our wardrobes bulging with clothes that we’ll fit into next year, our sheds a danger to walk into.
A lot of stuff is so cheap that even with a tight budget, we often don’t have to curb our impulse to buy.
The price is low, but the cost is high. The carbon emitted to manufacture and transport all this stuff is causing the earth to warm and, like us when we are developing a fever, the earth is restless and uneasy. Floods, forest fires, heat waves and storms are the symptoms.
If you have gone to do the weekly shopping and came home with a hedge trimmer, you are not alone; in my case it was a sewing machine (still in the attic).
Buying on impulse triggers the feelgood chemicals in our brains but it can be a bit like overdoing it on a night out, you don’t always feel so good the next day.
One way of buying better is to be aware of how we are buying. If you feel it may be impulse, press the pause button – wander to another aisle, go offline for five minutes or whatever – just be sure that you really want it when you hand over the money.
Another way to buy better is to consider how that item was made. If it is dirt cheap, it was possibly manufactured without any regard to workers or the environment.
Products made of natural materials probably used less fossil fuel in production. Local/Irish made products have less transport emissions plus the huge advantage that the money you spend stays locally.
Looking at the amount and type of packaging helps too. There have been improvements recently, with reduced packaging and clever alternatives to plastic and polystyrene. We still have a long way to go – Ireland is fourth highest packaging waste generator in the EU.
Buying better is often buying less. This means you can then afford to pay a little more for higher quality and more sustainably made products.
It is easier to reduce buying for those of a certain age who have already bought enough to last a lifetime. Younger people starting off have a stronger need and urge to buy, trying out different styles. Buying in vintage/second hand shops is a great way to do that and is easier on the wallet and the planet.
Fix it or ditch it
It’s frustrating when a simple thing goes wrong with something like a washing machine or television, and you end up having to buy a new one because you can’t get a spare part.
This will change though, because the EU has adopted a new Circular Economy Action Plan. In future such items will have to be possible to repair easily.
The Circular Economy Action Plan has lots of other initiatives like ensuring metals can be recovered from electric car batteries, reducing packaging and single use plastics, promoting compostable plastics and sustainable textiles.
Until this comes to fruition, perhaps we can look twice at something before we throw it out, and see if it can be repaired. The internet is filled with YouTube videos which show you how to repair just about anything. There’s a lot to be said for leaving it to the experts though and paying someone to mend your shoes, zips or bike.
This keeps money local and avoids a new purchase. Paying for repair can sometimes seem expensive compared with the value of the item but isn’t when we include the environmental cost.
It’s much easier to get something repaired locally when you bought it locally. A laptop is a good example. The local shop where you bought it can usually repair or upgrade it, while the online vendor doesn’t want to know.
A new lease of life
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. If that old chair is cluttering up the room, think twice before you ditch it. And if you need a chair, you don’t have to buy new.
The “Clare free to a good home” Facebook page is a treasure trove of items being given away. Some are in great condition, others need a bit of fixing up or cleaning but all are free. There’s everything including furniture, toys, kitchenware and clothes.
Charity shops are another great way to give a new lease of life to an item, whether donating or buying. They are going from strength to strength and Clare Haven Horizons Charity Shop in Ennis scooped three first prizes at the Irish Charity Shop Awards recently.
For bigger items like furniture, many shops collect and deliver. If you prefer to shop on-line, charity shops sell on www.thriftify.ie.
If you are crafty, it’s amazing what can be done either with some of your own old stuff or things you pick up in charity shops.
There are ten Men’s Shed groups in towns around Clare where you can learn skills in a friendly environment (www.menssheds.ie). Women know a good idea when they see one and have set up a women’s shed in Ennis, see Mná ag Gáire Facebook page.
The internet is brimming with upcycling ideas and instructions, and sites for buying and selling upcycled goods. If you are proud of something you’ve made, think of entering the annual competition for upcycling on mywaste.ie.
Last year’s winning entries included a BBQ from an old LPG cylinder, a picnic table from ladders and memorial teddy bears from clothes of a loved one who died.
Where does it go?
The days of the town dump are well over – the old Ennis dump has been upcycled as a wonderful amenity area. We are now used to multiple bins and separating our rubbish.
In Clare, almost 60% of bin waste goes in the general bin, 30% recycled and 13% in the brown bin. But what happens to it all?
Most of the organic waste in the brown bin is turned into compost – brown gold. This has multiple benefits. It avoids methane being given off if it goes to landfill – and methane is 80 times worse than carbon dioxide at causing global heating.
It provides an excellent compost for gardening, and it replaces peat compost which causes carbon emissions when it is being harvested from our bogs.
Despite the magic of composting, two thirds of household food waste is thrown into the general or recycle bin, which is a real waste.
Items that are relatively easy to recycle are glass bottles, drink cans, food cans, paper and cardboard. Recycling of these generally saves energy and reduces pollution.
You can also recycle or reuse paper and cardboard at home, for example, use cardboard boxes for storage or as a weed suppressant in the garden, use egg boxes, paper and used fat to start fires. Keep gluey and glossy items out of the fire though, including gooey nappies and all plastics. Burning these produces cancer-causing chemicals that land back in your garden.
Plastic is a wonderful invention, where the carbon compounds from oil are converted into complex chemicals that can do just about anything, except decompose readily.
A quick glance around will show dozens of uses. But we got a bit carried away with it. Ireland is by far the worst plastic user in Europe, using 62kg per person each year. That is twice the EU average.
We can now throw soft plastic into our recycle bin but whether it is hard or soft, plastic is the hardest waste item to recycle.
Up to a few years ago, 95% of the plastic we diligently separated in our households out was shipped off to China and other Asian countries where it was typically burned in uncontrolled conditions, with a dreadful impact on people’s health. Fortunately, China put a stop to that.
About 30% of the plastic gets reused in things like garden furniture, sleeping bags, and textiles. What doesn’t get recycled – often because it wasn’t clean and dry – gets added back to the general waste.
General or residual waste is everything else, including the recycle waste that wasn’t actually recycled. About one quarter goes to landfill and the remainder is incinerated.
There is some energy recovery on incineration but it is relatively inefficient and a lot of fossil fuel carbon from plastic goes up the chimney .
Changing our approach to purchasing and waste is not a case of being frugal and miserable, frowning every time someone buys a packaged item or puts a bit of paper in the general bin. It can make us feel better.
Limiting excess can give a sense of freedom, and satisfaction from avoiding the consumption culture. Spending money on experiences rather than things, can be ways of building bonds and increasing the happiness of all involved. Holding out to buy that special something that you know was made with care gives lasting pleasure.
Giving away excess is a painless way of making life easier for others. Repairing and upcycling can give unique pride and satisfaction from doing something with your hands – regardless of how imperfect the result.
Whether we have our own compost bin, or have the brown bin collected, knowing our food waste is being used to grow things is very satisfying.
We need systemic change to make these choices easier for us, to support the circular economy and to include the cost to the planet in the cost of products.
The Cop26 meeting taking place now in Glasgow might lead to some systemic changes in the coming years. Until then, our buying choices – which includes the choice not to buy – can have an immediate effect. And can be good for our happiness too.