Could you fit your month's plastic waste into a glass jar?

Timi Nicholson has reduced her family's plastic waste for the whole month to a single glass jar. Photograph: Laura Hutton

We can all name the pioneers of women’s suffrage, US civil rights and Irish independence, those who first saw the light and inspired others to dare to take on daunting challenges that needed to be faced. In our generation the central issue is climate change, and our reliance on plastics that are slowly killing the planet and polluting us in so many ways. So who are the environmental equivalents of Emmeline Pankhurst, Martin Luther King and Patrick Pearse?

Timi Nicholson is among the highest-profile zero-wasters in Ireland. Almost on a whim in 2016, she began cutting down on her family’s use of plastic, and soon had reduced the monthly waste to 500g, which fits in a single glass jar. “We started seeing waste and plastic everywhere and began actively searching for zero-waste alternatives,” she says. “It took a lot of time at first, but now we know what to buy and where. It’s become our daily routine, our new normal.”

I thought I would never resort to making deodorant or mouthwash, or use vinegar to clean the windows. Now I would not use the ones from a normal supermarket any more

She knows where to find ketchup and mayonnaise in glass bottles, and how to make her own versions of products that are only available in plastic. “I thought I would never resort to making homemade deodorant or mouthwash, or use vinegar to clean the windows and mirrors. Now I would not use the ones from a normal supermarket any more. I prefer to know that the ingredients are safe to use, and homemade options save money too.”

Her Instagram page and website offer advice on alternatives to disposable nappies, baby wipes, cling film, disposable razors and sanitary products, along with pointers on social etiquette when asking the staff at deli counters to pack your fish, cheese and meat into Tupperware containers brought from home.

When she joined the Zero Waste Ireland Facebook page, in January 2016, it had 250 members; now it has more than 13,000. She is becoming less newsworthy by the day, which thrills her. Last month Lidl installed facilities in all stores to take back unwanted packaging, and it has stopped selling many single-use plastic items. By 2025 its own-brand packaging will be entirely recyclable, and packaging on all products will be reduced by 20 per cent.

The Government has banned schools and public bodies from buying or using single-use plastic cups, cutlery or straws, and certain school boards – pioneered by Newpark Comprehensive, in Blackrock, Co Dublin, the first school in Ireland to go plastic free – are insisting pupils bring no single-use bottles, straws or cling film for lunches. Zero-waste shops are opening throughout the country, selling everything from pasta to shampoo in bulk to be decanted into your own containers.

Various voluntary groups offer advice on how to wean ourselves off plastics, such as the Cloth Nappy Library of Ireland, a nonprofit organisation founded by four mothers to offers loans of elasticated, Velcro-fastened cloth nappies, so that parents can gauge whether they might be willing to replace disposable nappies with washable ones. Doing so can save up to 4,500 nappies per child from going to landfill, where it takes them between 200 and 500 years to decompose. The Zero Waste Ireland Facebook page is particularly active, with advice on everything from repairing kayaks to making oat milk as a replacement for bottles of cow’s milk, or the latest washable cotton alternatives to toilet roll.

Zero-waster: ‘The only new items I buy new are underwear, pyjamas, kids’ shoes, schoolbooks and toothbrush heads,’ says Elaine Butler. Photograph: Alan Betson
Zero-waster: ‘The only new items I buy new are underwear, pyjamas, kids’ shoes, schoolbooks and toothbrush heads,’ says Elaine Butler. Photograph: Alan Betson

Living Lightly, a website run by another committed zero-waster, Elaine Butler, is a haven of sensible, eloquent insight. It also has a dizzyingly detailed directory of businesses who accept waste items, from Liberty Recycling in Dublin 2, which sends the leather from old shoes to Africa for handicrafts, to Smalls for All, a charity in England that will take used bras. Her site also lists places that take ragged old swimsuits, mattresses and garden equipment.

“Every time we buy something new we put more carbon into the atmosphere, so in 2018 I set a goal for 80 per cent of my purchases to be second-hand,” says Butler. “It was totally doable and enjoyable. All my ‘new’ clothes were second-hand, along with things like dinner plates, maths sets, Christmas decorations, to name just a few things. In fact, it’s probably easier to list the things I bought new, which included vegetable seeds, compost (in returnable bags), yoga pants and electric toothbrushes. (I just can’t bear the sensation of wooden eco-brushes inside my mouth, and we only need to replace the heads on them every year.)

“Nowadays, the only new items I buy new are underwear, pyjamas, kids’ shoes, schoolbooks and toothbrush heads. If I need something, I’ll check out charity shops, freecycle pages or online marketplaces first, and only if I draw a blank there will I buy new.”

Butler’s website tracks her progress growing loofahs to replace her shower sponge, and trying to repair her children’s headphones. The tone is more bemused exasperation than intolerant zealotry.

Zero-waster: Timi Nicholson keeps packaging to a minimum. Photograph: Laura Hutton
Zero-waster: Timi Nicholson keeps packaging to a minimum. Photograph: Laura Hutton

To people over 70, it seems odd to see us trying to grapple with a life without plastic, when it was entirely the norm for their generation. Our grandparents were reared in a preplastic age of willow baskets, tin pots, glass jars, ceramic containers and cloth bags, yet within a generation we came to depend so much on cling film and polythene that Ireland is now the biggest producer of plastic waste in Europe, according to recent Eurostat figures. We throw away 95 per cent of plastic packaging after a single use. So much of it makes its way to the sea that by 2050, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicts, the ocean will contain more plastic than fish by weight.

The idea of weaning ourselves off this toxic carcinogen is daunting, but for those willing to try, Butler’s website offers a multistep decontamination programme, starting by switching to a reusable water bottle and coffee cup, then seeking out unwrapped fruit, vegetables and bread, and finally swapping one or two of your staple food items for alternatives that are packaged in paper, glass or metal. If you manage to achieve all this in a week, by week two you could start switching to brands that offer refills of washing-up liquid, laundry liquid and olive oil; then try using vinegar, water and bicarbonate of soda as cleaning products, and swapping another few items on your shopping list to an alternative in compostable or infinitely recyclable packaging.

If you have the fortitude to get this far, you’re likely to manage bringing your own containers to the deli for cheese and cold meats, and to the butcher for fresh meat. By this stage, you’ll be covering food in the fridge with plates instead of cling film or foil, and you’ll have replaced liquid soap and shower gel for unwrapped soap bars. You may even be making your own soap, using ashes from the fire.

Zero-waster: Timi Nicholson uses a sustainable bag for her bread. Photograph: Laura Hutton
Zero-waster: Timi Nicholson uses a sustainable bag for her bread. Photograph: Laura Hutton

These steps can bring us some way to lessening the eight million tonnes of plastic that ends up in the ocean each year. The next phase is to try to influence others by winning hearts and minds through campaigns, such as the Shop & Drop days run by Friends of the Earth, where people are encouraged to leave their packaging at the supermarket door; or the various waste-reduction and -recycling programmes run by; or Zero Waste Alliance Ireland’s mission to keep crisp bags out of landfill in conjunction with Walkers Crips; or even smaller, more personal missions, such as Fifty Shades Greener, the effort of Raquel Noboa, from Co Clare, to abolish single-use packets of sauces and condiments in restaurants and hotels.

The sheer scale of the challenge may seem daunting, but the fact that half of the 335 million tonnes of plastic produced annually consists of single-use products means we can make dramatic inroads if each of us makes relatively minor changes.

Manchán Magan and Sorcha Hamilton are writing a new Irish Times column about the simple things we can all do for the good of the planet. They introduce it here


SuperNatural Food Market
St Andrew’s Resource Centre, Dublin 2;
A mecca of organic, plastic-free shopping, with everything from food to body products, supplements and cleaning goods.

Clonakilty, Co Cork;
A minimal-waste store with more than 100 food dispensers where you can get refills of pulses, grains, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, cereals, herbs and spices. Plus, a wall full of dispensers providing refills of everything from household cleaning products to skin and hair lotions, with large stainless steel containers of olive oils, cider vinegar and tamari, etc.

Dublin Food Co-Operative
Kilmainham, Dublin 8;
This co-op has been at the forefront of plastic-free living for decades. Bring your own containers and bags to pick up organic fruit, veg, pulses, etc. With refillable castille soap, shampoo bars by AB soaps of Wicklow and so much more.

Pax Whole Foods & Eco Goods
Westport, Co Mayo;
Offers a wide range of goods in dispensers, including grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, baking ingredients, herbs, spices, tea, coffee, oil, vinegar, liquid sweeteners and other condiments. There’s plastic-free deodorant, soap, toothpaste and mouthwash, toothbrushes, facial pads, menstrual cups and pads, and refill stations for shampoo and conditioner, hand and body wash, face and body cream and various household cleaning products.

Little Green Shop
This online shop based in Mullingar, Co Westmeath, promotes a plastic-free, organic lifestyle. Its stocks ecofriendly cleaning and household goods, babycare products and organic clothing, all with zero or minimal, entirely recyclable packaging.

Small Changes
Drumcondra, Dublin 9;
A grocery with a zero-waste ethos offering plant-based wholefoods and dry foods in dispensers, along with eco-friendly household and hygiene products.

Phibsborough, Dublin 7;
Stocks organic, unpackaged fruit and veg, unpackaged loose and organic dry ingredients. You will also find green-living essentials such as washing-up detergent, shampoo and conditioner refills, and apple cider vinegar.

Minimal Waste Grocery
St Anne’s Park, Clontarf, Dublin 3;
Market stall and online shop selling everything from cleaning equipment to muesli. You can decant into your own containers at their stall, or they’ll post them to you in paper or biodegradable packaging.

Your local farmers’ market
Farmers’ markets are a prime source of packaging-free products, often produced directly by the stallholders themselves. You’ll find everything from bread and biscuits to mushrooms and salami at your nearest farmers’ market. Bord Bia has details here.

Manchán Magan and Sorcha Hamilton begin a new Irish Times column, One Change, today, about the simple things we all can do to help our planet. You can read the first ones here and here