Mindy O’Brien’s 10 tips for reducing the use of plastic

Hilary Fannin: Citing the plastic-bag tax, she said that Ireland had the capacity to influence behaviour at an international level

According to an EU directive Ireland has to recycle 65% of all waste electrical items by next year. In Port Laoise AMK Recycling are working to meet those targets. Video: Enda O'Dowd

We met up in a local bar where they served great mushy peas with the fish and chips. I hadn’t seen her in a while. We get together every now and again, having met years ago at the school gate when our children were in primary school and then sustained a friendship long after our offspring went their separate ways.

I ordered a gin and tonic, which came with a little plastic straw – to stir the ice, I suppose. I hardly noticed, just took the straw out of my drink, put it on the table and kept jabbering on about whatever I was jabbering on about. When the waiter came back with our food, my friend asked him if the pub would consider discontinuing the use of plastic straws and try paper products instead. She was informative and polite. Later, the manager stopped by, and at the end of the conversation the bar had changed its policy.

My friend Mindy O’Brien is the co-ordinator of Voice (Voice of Irish Concern for the Environment). Born in the US, she’s an environmental attorney who worked on Capitol Hill in Washington DC before moving to Ireland more than 20 years ago.

She is tireless in her environmental work, calm and reliable, with an unshakable faith in human nature. When I bumped into her on the train a couple of weeks ago, I was carrying a takeaway coffee. She reached into her bag and gave me a keep cup.


“Use it,” she said.

When we last met, we talked about the “Shop and Drop” day of action that will take place nationwide tomorrow, April 21st, when shoppers will be encouraged to ask Irish retailers to help turn the tide on plastic pollution. Organised by Friends of the Earth and supported by various environmental initiatives, the day will involve local volunteers handing out postcards that outline six ways supermarkets can reduce plastic packaging. Shoppers will be asked to shop as normal in their local supermarkets, then take off excess plastic packaging at the checkout and, politely, leave it in the shop.

“Don’t you ever just get overwhelmed?” I asked her. “Don’t you look at pictures of a dead sperm whale washed up on the Spanish coast with 29 kilos of plastic in its stomach and think that the change in human behaviour required to stop the slow death of the sea is just too big an ask? Don’t you ever wonder what is the point in a day of action on plastic packaging when you can’t buy a cucumber without a condom on it?”

She took a deep breath and told me that, in her opinion, solutions to global threats start locally. Citing the plastic-bag tax, she said that Ireland had the capacity to change and to influence behaviour at an international level. Behaviour is altered by looking at your neighbour, she said, reminding me while she was at it that she had recently made reusable bags for her vegetables out of old sheets.

“It’s really not that difficult,” she added with a smile.

“So if I make a potato sack out of my old pillowcase, will you buy me another gin?” I asked her.

Her answer was to provide me with Mindy O’Brien’s 10 tips for reducing plastic consumption:

  1. Leave plastic packaging behind at your supermarket on April 21st, either at the till or in a designated container.
  2. Invest in a reusable water bottle for you and your family. Check out refill.ie, which shows where you can refill your bottles for free.
  3. Buy a reusable coffee cup for takeaways. The 200 million takeaway cups we use annually are not recyclable here. Many coffee shops and cafes offer financial incentives for using your own reusable cups. Check out consciouscup.ie.
  4. Try to buy loose fruit and veg. You can limit non-recyclable packaging and food waste by only buying what you need. Make or buy reusable cotton bags, or put the produce loose in your own shopping bag.
  5. Refuse plastic straws and ask local bars and retailers to invest in paper straws instead.
  6. Refuse single-use plastic coffee stirrers, cutlery and water cups, all of which remain in the environment for 400 years.
  7. When there's a choice, buy items with paper or cardboard packaging.
  8. Ask your supermarket to offer items such as pasta, rice and nuts in bulk, and bring your own containers for them.
  9. Do the same with meat, chicken and fish. Ask your butcher to wrap your purchases in butcher paper rather than plastic bags.
  10. Urge your local TDs and the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Denis Naughten, to support the Waste Reduction Bill.