by Dr Claire O’Neill, Cork University Business School
As we start a new year, it is a great time to set yourself and your family some new commitments that will make your home more sustainable.
The question often asked is: ‘can I make a difference?’, and the answer to that is: absolutely.
Every individual and household effort adds up to the collective effort that is urgently needed.
According to the IPCC report last year, we have only 12 years left if we don’t act now – we need to cut global carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 and completely decarbonise by 2050.
But right now, our emissions are still rising.
The following five steps will ensure you do your bit for global sustainability in 2019.
Step 1. Tackle your Waste
We are keen recyclers. We have conquered the recycling bin. Or so we thought.
If you were diligently recycling all your plastics, you may be a bit disappointed to realise that any soft plastic (eg any plastic you can crunch up in your hand) is not currently recyclable, thus ends up in landfill.
Remember the slogan – ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’? There is a reason that ‘reduce’ and ‘reuse’ come before ‘recycle’.
One proactive way of tackling your waste is to reduce the amount of plastic you buy.
Next time you’re standing in the fruit and vegetable aisle in the supermarket try to choose as much of your fruit and veg as ‘plastic free’ or ‘loose’ as you can.
You’ll find excellent selections in farmers markets or fruit and veg stalls too.
But remember, don’t fall into the trap of putting them into one of the plastic bags on offer, just throw them into your basket loose, or bring your own reusable bag to hold them.
Any plastics you do have, especially hard plastic containers, try to re-purpose them – can any be used to hold toiletries or makeup in your bathroom? Or use some to pot some home-grown lettuce in the summer.
Step 2. Watch your Water
The drought of summer 2018 made a lot of us realise that water is so precious, and even though we like to think we have it in abundance, it is an essential resource that we need to protect.
A few small steps you can take include turning the tap off while brushing your teeth, make stock from your vegetable water, use leftover water after dinnertime to water your house plants and spend a little less time in the shower, a few minutes can make a big difference.
Did you know that an average shower dispels 10 litres of water per minute, yes, per minute!
So, if you have a 15-minute shower, you’ll use on average 150 litres.
Simply cutting your time back by five minutes could save 50 litres of water.
If you crunch the numbers, over the course of a week, a month, a year, for everyone in the household?
That’s a lot of water! Being more mindful will make a big difference.
Step 3. Switch your Energy
Ireland has a long, loving relationship with reducing our energy on the one hand (don’t dare leave that immersion on!), and, equally, increasing our use of ‘unclean’ energy on the other hand (burning fossil fuels such as coal in our open fires).
Switch to using renewable sources of energy for your open fire, such as wood logs, or even better, use an energy efficient stove to make your fuel last longer.
Turn off the power going to your plugs, such as your phone charger, once your phone has been charged.
Most people will probably charge their phones during the night, which means they will drain power unnecessarily. Why not plug your phone in while you’re having your dinner or watching the soaps in the evening? That way you can easily unplug once it’s charged.
Did you buy a new TV for Christmas? LED TVs are increasingly more energy-efficient but don’t forget to fully turn it off as leaving any household appliance on standby could use up to 20% of energy while on that mode.
Reduce your use of your tumble dryer by air-drying your clothes and resist re-boiling the kettle several times.
Turning back to older traditions such as making a pot of tea and using a tea-cosy will ensure you don’t need to keep going back to the kettle.
Step 4. Trade your Transport
Once seen as a necessity, the beloved car can become more sustainable too.
There are several steps you can take if you feel that you may have a poor transport ‘carbon footprint’.
One short-term step is to trade a long car journey to a business meeting with a Skype meeting instead – technology has greatly increased the opportunities to be more sustainable.
Another is to trade your car trip to work for taking your bike or going on public transport or on foot.
There are lots of park and ride or public bike schemes that usually just need you to do it a few times to break the habit of relying on your car for every journey, or you could always carpool with colleagues or friends.
One long-term step would be to consider buying a more sustainable car in the future, such as a hybrid or electric.
Again, technology has advanced enormously in the motor industry which makes it more practical and affordable than ever to go green.
Step 5. Focus on your Food
Our food is inextricably linked to all the previous steps – waste food, using too much energy and water for production and cooking, and the multiple journeys food takes by air, sea and road.
Being mindful of all of this, you can take some steps to reduce some of the negative impacts.
Waste food continues to be an issue in Ireland and more than one million tonnes of food is wasted every year, a third coming directly from households.
Buying less overall and buying loose fruit and vegetables may allow you to reduce the waste that you may have from multipacks.
Freeze food such as fish and meat so that you can defrost as you need it, an easy way to ensure it doesn’t end up in the bin.
Juicing or making soup from vegetables that are turning is a good way of reducing food waste too.
Buying local produce, whenever possible, is an easy way to ensure that your grocery shop is not contributing to unnecessary food miles while at the same time supporting the local economy.
Some farmers or local food providers offer an online ordering service or box scheme, with regular pick-up points or deliveries.
One of the most effective ways of reducing your carbon footprint is to reduce your consumption of meat.
Shops and restaurants are increasingly offering food choices that are plant-based.
One easy way to start integrating more plant-based foods into your diet is to get on board with ‘Meatless Mondays’.
Dr Claire O’Neill is a lecturer and researcher at Cork University Business School, and, along with colleagues Professor Mary McCarthy and Dr Shadi Hashem, is involved in a research project, funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, in collaboration with the Environmental Research Institute (ERI) in UCC and research partners in four other European countries.
This €1.2m EU project, PLATEFORMS, aims to investigate how food supply and food consumption are contributing to sustainability.
Through in-depth exploration of kitchens and in-depth interviews, researchers will uncover how households use various food supply platforms and whether they affect food preparation, storage and disposal in the home.
The PLATEFORMS project is part of the European transnational ‘SUSFOOD2’ initiative for sustainable food systems research from production to consumption.