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It’s good to be green

Small changes saved big money in a Dublin fire station showing how green principles pay off

Being able to boast solid green credentials is no longer just a nice thing for companies to be able to use in marketing campaigns. Environmental consciousness also makes a positive contribution to the bottom line in terms of reduced waste, energy savings, and other cost reductions.

As GreenPlan founder and Ashoka Ireland fellow Neil McCabe puts it: "If you say something can help save the planet, that's one thing. But if you say it will save money and decarbonise at the same time, it's a no-brainer for businesses."

Ashoka is a global organisation which supports social entrepreneurs in the creation of solutions to some of the most pressing problems facing society today. Rather than leave problems like climate change to governments and politicians to solve, Ashoka fellows develop innovative and sustainable responses which deliver real results for people around the world.

"At its best, going green means a commitment to social and ecological sustainability", says Ashoka Ireland advisory board chair Bride Rosney. "In my experience, Ashoka fellows are all, consciously or not, on a green journey – and they have integrated social and ecological sustainability into their businesses. Some do so in a very direct and comprehensive way, such as Michael Kelly of GIY and Neil McCabe of GreenPlan, but others do so in a less obvious way. For example, Mary Nally of Third Age builds structures that keep older people engaged in their communities and place them as advocates to build communities of healthier older people who are a willing and able part of society. This is social sustainability in action."


McCabe’s green journey began in 2008 with some major changes in his workplace, Kilbarrack Fire Station. “We lost 50 percent of our crew back then”, he recalls. “They went to a new fire station in Swords. Morale and motivation of the remaining crew went through the floor as a result.”

McCabe decided to do something about it. “I’m a doer”, he says. “I came up with the crazy idea of battery recycling. I put a cardboard box out with a sign on it saying ‘used batteries here’ and we soon had the box filled with batteries. We didn’t have anywhere to put the batteries; there wasn’t even an EU directive covering batteries at the time. I was hiding cardboard boxes full of used batteries around the station. I found I had started something unwittingly.”

Fire station

He began thinking about the financial benefits of recycling and waste reduction. “Within a month we had firefighters using their own cars to bring waste to bring-banks in the area,” he says. “That waste would normally have gone to landfill. I put up a scorecard to keep track of the savings we were making. Within 12 months we had saved €2,064. GreenPlan was the result of having idea after idea. It became a step-by-step process dealing with waste, energy, water, and so on. I developed it into a certifiable approach to sustainability.”

As a result, Kilbarrack became the world’s first carbon neutral fire station in 2012. “One of the things I did after that first year was to crowd-fund €44,000 from my fellow firefighters to set up a start-up company to manufacture thermo-dynamic solar collectors to make hot water for the station from wind and rain. Despite the fact that they are facing east and we are surrounded by trees they are making 80 percent of the hot water for the station generating €6,000 in savings. That gave them a 2.5 year payback.”

Kilbarrack station has since reduced its energy consumption by 90 per cent, water intake by 92 per cent, gas consumption by 97 per cent. Seventy percent of station waste is recycled and 100 percent of organic waste is composted. By applying the GreenPlan accreditation more widely Dublin Fire Brigade has saved more than €11 million in operation and procurement costs and reduced its energy spend by 44 per cent as of October 2014.

“GreenPlan saves money, reduces carbon emissions, and helps society”, McCabe points out. “It is now out there in the business market and companies are all over it.”

GIY may not have quite the same impact on the bottom line but it is making a very positive contribution to businesses in Ireland and the UK. Founded in Waterford in 2009 by local man Michael Kelly, GIY is a movement of people who grow some of their own food.

“The reason for doing it was to help people reconnect with food and get healthier,” Kelly explains. “It’s not really about self-sufficiency, the aim is to help understand about where food comes from and how it works, to teach people about food empathy.”

GIY works in four main areas – home, school, work, and in the community. It started out with what Kelly describes as "a road to Damascus moment". "I was in the supermarket one day when I was buying some garlic, looked at the label and saw that it was from China. I decided to grow my own garlic and I was really bad at it. There was no network or group out there to help me so I set up the first GIY group in 2009 as a hobby. Within a year we had 10-12 groups set up in the south-east of the country."

Social enterprise

It then morphed into a social enterprise. “This year we will support more than 150,000 people in Ireland and the UK to grow their own food for the first time. The challenge for us now is how to meet the demand. We now have an income of €450,000 and employ eight full and part-time staff.”

Entry to the corporate sector came about almost by accident. "Diageo were making changes to the staff garden in St James's Gate and we came up with the idea of turning it into a food garden. It's still an aesthetically beautiful place but it is being used to grow food. We started a programme to get people out from behind their desks and learning a life skill. It's a great leveller between different employees. You get people from all sections and all levels of the organisation mixing together."

No need for expensive corporate bonding weekends – just get out into the garden.

GIY now offers a service where workplace programmes are designed to meet the specific needs of individual organisations.

"It's not one size fits all", Kelly points out. "In some cases we have kits where people can grow food on their desks. In other cases we offer volunteering opportunities for staff to work on community gardens. We work with a lot of different companies including BNY Mellon, Deloitte, and Genzyme and we will start working with Google shortly."

And the benefits are considerable. “There is lots of research to show that any interaction with nature is a very positive thing,” Kelly says. “There are no downsides to it. The demographics of the people taking part are quite interesting as well – it’s everyone, not just older people. We have found that younger employees are particularly motivated by it.”

The next step for GIY is the development of a food education centre in Waterford.

“This is a €1.4 million project and we are at the final stage of financing for it. We are looking for 20 companies to get involved by investing €10,000 each in it. This is not a donation, we will run programmes for them for three years in return.”