Irish grassroots activists leading the climate change uprising

Lack of policial action on climate change has spawned a movement of strong, committed environmental activists

With the help of her parents, friends and a coastguard, 11-year-old Flossie Donnelly organises regular beach clean-ups in Dún Laoghaire. She blogs about the environment at www.flossieandthebeachcleaners.com. Video: Kathleen Harris

 

The grassroots uprising is underway and people of all ages are calling for great urgency on climate action. A lack of political action in Ireland has spawned a movement of strong, committed environmental activists – campaigning for a world in which humans and the natural world can co-exist.

Before you even step outside your house in the morning, you are impacting the planet. What you choose to eat, how you heat your home and how you manage your household waste matters. How you travel to work, how you spend your leisure time and where you go on holidays all have an impact. Be inspired by these sustainability champions to move towards the low-carbon society that we must all embrace to prevent runaway climate change from destroying civilisation as we know it.

Kate Ruddock, deputy director of Friends of the Earth

Kate Ruddock from Friends of the Earth with colleagues from Love Leitrim and Trinity Divest Fossil Fuels at an anti Fracking protest outside the Dáil. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Kate Ruddock from Friends of the Earth with colleagues from Love Leitrim and Trinity Divest Fossil Fuels at an anti Fracking protest outside the Dáil. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Kate Ruddock moved from environmental consultancy to environmental activism when she returned to Dublin after five years in Scotland. A graduate of geography and geology from Trinity College Dublin, she did a Masters in Environmental Sustainability in the University of Edinburgh and then worked as an environmental consultant on renewable energy projects in Scotland. Following a stint in environmental education at the Rediscovery Centre in Ballymun, she joined Friends of the Earth in 2013. She is a board member of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) and a member of the National Economic and Social Council.

Moving Ireland away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy is Ruddock’s central campaigning agenda. “De-carbonising the energy systems is essential for a healthy future for the planet and the people that live in it,” she says.

Ruddock says nothing less than systems change is required. “Take electricity, energy, waste, land use or transport for example and you see that we need our government to make changes so that we can all make the right choice. Very often, people want to make the right choice but those choices aren’t available to them,” she says.

Policy to give schools, farms, offices and householders a fair payment for power they supply into the electricity grid is what the Government could do right now, according to Ruddock. “We need individuals and groups to put pressure on politicians to pay people who generate extra energy whether it’s from rooftop solar energy in urban areas or micro windturbines in rural areas. I’m optimistic that there has been a shift in global and Irish understanding of climate change in 2018 – and the Citizens’ Assembly debate on climate change grasped the issues really well. There is a strong movement in Ireland now to get the political establishment to tackle climate change.” foe.ie

Padraic Fogarty, campaigns officer with Irish Wildlife Trust

Padriac Fogarty Irish Wildlife Trust
Padriac Fogarty Irish Wildlife Trust

Padraic Fogarty gained critical acclaim with his book, Whittled Away: Ireland’s vanishing nature (Collins Press, 2017). An outspoken critic of government policies which have failed to protect the natural world, he brings his professional knowledge as an ecologist to his campaign work. One of the speakers at an Extinction Rebellion protest outside the Natural History Museum in Dublin in November 2018, Fogarty is adamant that the ecological crisis (the World Wild Life Fund reports a 60 per cent decline in species between 1970 and 2014) is equally important to the climate change crisis.

Motivated by his love of the natural world since childhood, he says that he doesn’t consider himself an angry person, but species loss makes him angry. “I don’t think people fully appreciate what has happened. Business as usual won’t help. We’ll need to disrupt fishing, farming and forestry and change the mindset of every government agency and private company to solve this,” he says. He adds that it’s important to realise that species loss is caused by habitats destroyed by pollution and intensive farming not by climate change. Yet according to Fogarty, restoring nature - rewetting bogs, planting trees and developing nature friendly farming is the cheapest and easiest tool to tackle climate change. iwt.ie

Mindy O’Brien, national co-ordinator of Voice Ireland

Mindy O’Brien, national co-ordinator of Voice Ireland
Mindy O’Brien, national co-ordinator of Voice Ireland

Mindy O’Brien worked as an environmental lawyer on Capitol Hill in Washington DC before she moved to Ireland with her Irish husband in 1996. “My son was young at the time and I started volunteering one day a week for Voice, a new environmental NGO that formed when Greenpeace was wound down in Ireland,” she explains. She became national co-ordinator of Voice in 2012. Originally focused solely on water issues, Voice has become Ireland’s largest environmental charity focusing on waste at policy and community level. O’Brien has been central to everything from free meals from food waste events to lobbying MEPs in Brussels on the break free from plastic and rethink plastic movements. “People say that strong legislation is needed but we also have to win hearts and minds on the ground which is why we ran the recycling ambassador programme which showed people what goes in their household recycling bins,” explains O’Brien. “We also need industry to contribute towards the clean-up costs of plastic litter. At the moment, what companies pay Repak only subsidises domestic waste collection and civic recycling sites.” A mild mannered American, O’Brien is nonetheless an ardent campaigner. “The small wins motivate me and the fact that most people want to do the right thing once they stop and think about the impact of choosing the convenient option.”

Voice Ireland’s next project is to create conscious consumption communities. “We will talk to communities about what they want to do most – introduce re-usable containers, go plastic-free or set up water refill stations. Recycling isn’t the panacea. We also have to prevent waste in the first place - remember to refuse, reduce and reuse before you recycle or rot,” she says. voiceireland.org

Síofra Caherty, eco-fashion designer

Siofra Caherty - Jump the Hedges
Síofra Caherty - Jump the Hedges

Belfast-based eco-fashion designer Síofra Caherty makes tote bags, yoga bags, fanny bags and stash bags from recycled truck tarpaulin. She sells these funky durable bags online at jumpthehedges.com, at Tri Yoga shops in London and at markets. “I go into truck yards to buy the tarpaulin. I get them industrially cleaned and then I make my bags in my studio in Belfast. It’s great to create products from something that people don’t consider beautiful,” she says.

A graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and Belfast School of Art, Caherty set up her eco-fashion business after travelling across Europe and North America to research the zero waste movement and eco-fashion. A grant from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust allowed her to go to the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the biggest eco-fashion event in the world. “I met people like Bill McDonagh, the co-author of Cradle to Cradle: remaking the way we make things,” she says. From there, Caherty went to Zurich to see Freitag, a company which makes bags from recycled materials. Then she travelled for 10 weeks across North America visiting zero waste communities in New York, San Francisco, Portland and Vancouver. Fab Scrap in Brooklyn which collects textile waste from the fashion industry to sell on, the packaging-free Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, the employee-owned Recology resource recovery business on the west coast of the USA and Bolt Threads, which creates natural fibres including mushroom leather, impressed her most.

“I’m very passionate about the environment and my business has evolved into a platform for activism. I give talks about what I’ve learnt. Sustainability relates to everything we do.” jumpthehedges.com

Flossie Donnelly, the beach cleaner

Flossie Donnelly
Flossie Donnelly

Eleven-year-old Flossie Donnelly is the youngest of our sustainability champions. She hosts regular beach clean-ups at Sandycove, Co Dublin and writes about what she discovers on her blog flossieandthebeachcleaners.com. In 2018 she fundraised for two seabins to be put in Dun Laoghaire harbour. These bins - the first in Ireland - suck the rubbish out of the sea and flush the water back in.

Her public engagements include speaking at the Extinction Rebellion protest at the Natural History Museum in Dublin in November and leading the March for the Ocean in Dun Laoghaire on World Oceans Day in June. In 2018, she also spoke on International Women’s Day at the National Convention Centre and at a climate change gathering in Trinity College Dublin in December.

“I’ve three simple tips – get a group of people to text a restaurant chain that is using too much plastic; bring a bag to collect the plastic rubbish when you go on a walk and use a keep cup or reusable water bottle,” she explains. Her mum, Harriet Donnelly is part of the “plogging” global network of people who pick up plastic when they are jogging.

In 2019, Flossie’s TEDx talk will go live and the charity Flossie and the Beachcleaners will be set up. And a French production company is travelling to Ireland to film her for a documentary on mini–activists around the world.

Flossie first encountered plastic pollution when on holidays with her parents in Thailand four years ago. “They’ve grown up with it. It’s natural and normal and that’s really bad,” she says. She and her mother plan to go to Indonesia this Easter to see plastic pollution and tell school children there about her ambition to rid the world of marine litter. “I don’t want my generation to suffer for what my parents’ generation has caused,” she says.

Flossie’s latest campaign is to encourage school children to partake in a Climate Change Strike on Friday, February 15th for one hour. “Make banners, saving the planet can be fun,” she says. flossieandthebeachcleaners.com

Fiona O’Doherty and Una Hand from NoSupTown

Una Hand and Fiona O’Doherty
Una Hand and Fiona O’Doherty

Clinical psychologist Fiona O’Doherty says that fear and guilt provoked her to set up NoSupTown in 2018. The south Dublin group of volunteers encourages traders and consumers to use alternatives to single use plastic. “I worried about the long term consequences that ingesting single use plastic will have on our health and I feel guilty about societies destroyed by pollution,” she says. So with Una Hand (who has a Masters in Environmental Management and worked with the Irish Green Building Council and the SEAI) and a group of volunteers, O’Doherty has run trade fairs showcasing sustainable alternatives to single use plastics for cafes, shops and at festivals in Dalkey and Dun Laoghaire. “We’re not preachy. We’re practical and positive,” says Hand who also gives talks as part of the Cool Planet Champions programme run by the climate change exhibition in Powerscourt Estate, Co Wicklow.

The Dalkey Book Festival responded to their call by using jugs of water and glasses instead of bottled water while food stallholders at the Dalkey Lobster Festival moved to compostable containers. NoSupTown won the Dalkey Community Council Endeavour Cup in 2018. Their belief is that only by reducing the demand for single use plastic will its production decline. Their next step is to organise a trade fair in the Sandyford Industrial Estate targeting food outlets, offices and wholesalers/retailers in the area. “If you focus too much on the big picture, you won’t do anything. If you start with what’s easy [TO TACKLE], you can have an impact one town at a time,” says O’Doherty. Traders who have made pledges to stop using plastic straws, plastic cutlery and cups are highlighted on nosuptown.com.

Tara Shine and Madeleine Murray from Plastic Free Kinsale and Change by Degrees

Tara Shine and Madeleine Murray
Tara Shine and Madeleine Murray

Environmental scientist Tara Shine and archaeologist Madeleine Murray first met when they were both swimming in the sea at Sandycove Island just outside Kinsale in Co Cork.

Shine’s work with the Mary Robinson Foundation was winding down and Murray had switched careers to work as a communications strategist. She felt she knew nothing about recycling, renewable energy and sustainable energy even though her children were part of the Green Schools initiative.

Plastic Free Kinsale grew out of a sustainability focus group meeting Shine and Murray held in Kinsale in January 2018. Within eighth weeks of creating and sharing videos and messages on how to live plastic free, they had connected with over 500,000 people. In April 2018 they set up the social enterprise Change By Degrees to help businesses put a human face on their sustainability stories. They won a Social Entrepreneurs Ireland award in 2018 which includes a €10,000 cash prize and mentoring for a year.

“Our aim is to educate and inspire people in their homes and offices,” says Murray. “We realise that we all have to change now and we want to reach people where they are. We can’t wait for the green teams in our children’s schools to grow up,” adds Shine. Their emphasis is positive. “We don’t see a value in hammering on about the doom and gloom messages. People in Ireland are ideologically ready to tackle climate change but they need the correct information in a way that connects with them. We just feel we kick-started something that was ready to happen,” says Murray.

Shine is in Antarctica until the end of January with 80 other female scientists on the international leadership programme Homeward Bound. She hopes to draw further inspiration from this experience to enrich the environmental messages spread by Plastic Free Kinsale and Change by Degrees. changebydegrees.com

Barry O’Connor, environmental scientist who founded Refill Ireland “There are two and a half million plastic bottles used everyday in Ireland and Tidy Towns groups say that plastic bottles are the highest waste item found in litter picks,” says Barry O’Connor, the founder of Refill Ireland. In 2017 he began the initiative to give the public access to tap water - either in reusable beakers at festivals and sports events or at refill stations using their own water bottles. “I was inspired by Bristol where 200 businesses signed up to give free tap refills and I thought why can’t Dublin do the same?” he says.

So, he built the website refill.ie which now has over 600 pinned locations where people can get free drinking water. “It’s all about preventing single use plastic so we approach all businesses and ask if they are willing to offer the public free tap water. Ireland has one of the highest water standards in the world and most people are happy to drink it,” says O’Connor who won a Social Entrepreneurs Ireland award in 2018.

These businesses – cafes, offices, hairdressers – then display a Refill Ireland badge in their window so people know they can ask for tap water for free. Refill Ireland also works with local authorities to install water dispensers in civic buildings such as libraries. Businesses willing to become community refill hubs are given free water dispensers, funded by their local authority.

O’Connor says that he is motivated by waste prevention. “Recycling isn’t always the answer as it’s all shipped to Asia. But, it’s easy to prevent waste if you focus on the alternative. Tackling single use plastic bottles is the place to start. People can also carry multiuse bags for shopping and bring food containers to their local butcher shop.” refill.ie

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