Have yourself a Zero Waste Christmas

In this Echo series, we talk to Cork people planning a zero waste, plastic-free or more sustainable Christmas. Today, IRENE HALPIN LONG talks to West Cork woman Emily Fitzgerald, who won’t be giving ‘traditional’ presents
Have yourself a Zero Waste Christmas
Emily Fitzgerald at home near Ardfield, Clonakilty, Co. Cork. Picture Denis Minihane.

ECOLOGIST Emily Fitzgerald lives in Ardfield, Clonakilty, with her partner, Tommy, and her teenage daughter, Erica. A passion for all things environmental has been part of Emily’s life since she was a young girl.

Growing up in Bandon, she was heavily influenced by her parents’ practical attitudes towards consumption and waste.

“My parents never wasted anything when I was growing up. Things weren’t replaced unless they were broken beyond repair,” she says.

As well as being mindful of what the family consumed, Emily and her siblings spent a lot of their spare time in the great outdoors, where her love for nature was garnered.

She said: “People refer to The Environment but it is actually Our Environment. It’s important to be aware that everyone is responsible for a piece of it so we can’t just take what we want and not give anything back.”

Emily Fitzgerald at home near Ardfield, Clonakilty, Co. Cork. Picture Denis Minihane.
Emily Fitzgerald at home near Ardfield, Clonakilty, Co. Cork. Picture Denis Minihane.

Emily has been mindful of reducing household waste and has made a number of manageable changes to her and her family’s lifestyle in order to make a positive contribution towards protecting our environment.

“The first thing we did was get rid of the rubbish bin and bin bags. We use a little recyclable or compostable bag. It made us stop and think about where waste goes, what can be recycled and what can be composted.

“If you don’t have a rubbish bin, it really forces you to think about everything you are bringing into your house.”

Emily lives on a farm in Ardfield with Tommy and Erica. They have chickens who eat some of the leftover food from the household, like discarded leaves from vegetables and stale bread. Any other leftover food waste is put in their home composter.

Both Emily and Erica made practical changes to their toiletries and cosmetics in an attempt to be more environmentally friendly.

Emily Fitzgerald with some trees close to her home near Ardfield, Clonakilty, Co. Cork.Picture: Denis Minihane.
Emily Fitzgerald with some trees close to her home near Ardfield, Clonakilty, Co. Cork.Picture: Denis Minihane.

“We use shampoo bars and solid soap. We try to avoid buying things that come in plastic packaging. With regards to toothpaste, we buy a mix of items; regular toothpaste in tubes and toothpaste tablets. We mix and match because some changes are harder to make then others in practical terms.”

Emily and her family take a practical approach to living a minimal waste lifestyle. She said: “Zero waste is nearly impossible. Minimal waste is a better term.

“If everyone did something, it would make a huge difference to our environment. It’s not about everybody being perfect. If we all simply took what we needed, as opposed to what we wanted, there would be a lot less waste.”

With this in mind, Emily has decided to apply her principles regarding minimal waste to Christmas celebrations with her family and friends. A few years ago, she, her siblings and her parents decided that, as adults, they didn’t need to buy Christmas gifts for each other.

“I love Christmas,” said Emily. “I love when my sisters and brothers descend on mam and dad’s house. My parents don’t want Christmas presents and they always say they don’t need gifts from us, so instead we each bring a part of the Christmas meal to their house or we give a donation to charity on their behalf.”

Emily and Tommy don’t exchange Christmas presents because “there is nothing in particular that we need.”

Emily’s daughter, Erica, is on board with the idea of a minimal waste Christmas, but Emily keenly points out that she receives a Christmas present every year.

“We give her something that we know she will use. This year, she asked for two books and either a pair of dance shoes or basketball boots.”

Emily’s message of a minimal waste Christmas is not an attempt to eradicate the magic of the festive season, rather, she believes it will help enhance the true meaning of the holidays (spending time with loved ones) while helping improve the condition of our planet.

Mass consumerism and an increase in spending, particularly around Christmas, adversely affects the environment and, arguably, our relationships with those around us.

Emily said: “Give people your time instead of giving them things. Generosity shouldn’t be measured by the things we give to each other but by the time we give to each other.”

Emily has many nieces, nephews and godchildren. The adults in the family do a Kris Kindle for the children so that each child receives one present from either an aunt or an uncle.

Emily Fitzgerald and Tommy Moyles near Ardfield, Clonakilty, Co. Cork. Picture Denis Minihane.
Emily Fitzgerald and Tommy Moyles near Ardfield, Clonakilty, Co. Cork. Picture Denis Minihane.

Emily said: “My parents bring the grandchildren to the pnto or to the cinema and explain to them that the day out is their Christmas present. They love it.

“So, for Christmas, they get a present from Santa and one present from each side of their family, as opposed to getting lots of toys that are played with on Christmas Day and are forgotten about after that.

“This Christmas, I am bringing my four-year-old goddaughter, Saoirse, to the West Cork Model Railway Village in Clonakilty in lieu of a Christmas present because she is really into trains at the moment.

“I think Christmas is about spending more time with children and giving them an experience, as opposed to more toys that they will forget about.

“Kids can get overwhelmed at Christmas because they get so much stuff. It’s far better to spend quality time with them. I think they appreciate that.”

As well as spending time with the children in their families, Erica and Tommy are going to plant trees on the farm for each of their nieces, nephews and godchildren.

“It will be a lovely day with the kids because we’ll plant the trees together. Also, I hope it will teach them important lessons about why we should plant more trees and why being outside is so important for our wellbeing. We can get disconnected from our environment sometimes.”

Repak carried out a study in 2018 which concluded that Ireland would generate 83,000 tonnes of packaging at Christmas time, equivalent to the combined packaging waste of 176,000 people or the volume of packaging waste produced by both Galway and Limerick in one year.

Parenting site, Rollercoaster.ie, questioned their readers about their festive spending habits. The survey found that 1 in 8 Irish parents struggle financially at Christmas and get into debt. 1 in 6 spend up to €1,000 on gifts.

Emily said: “Christmas is a good time to start looking at what you are bringing into your home and what waste might occur. If people are in the habit of buying for lots of people, it might be too late this year to tell everyone that you aren’t going to buy a present for them. So, this year, when you are giving them a present, you can talk about doing something different next year, like meeting up for a drink or calling over for some mince pies and a hot chocolate. Or, you could talk about cutting down the number of presents you give each other and put a monetary cap on how much to spend so that people aren’t feeling the pressure of spending money.”

Emily understands the stress that parents of young children may feel around Christmas time.

She said: “It’s definitely harder to have a simpler Christmas when you have young children because there are so many adverts on TV and they ask for specific things from Santa. But I think it is important to get across to kids that it’s important to give as well as get.

“A child could be encouraged to make a small donation to charity, or they could gift some of their old toys to a charity or pass them on to someone else. We all feel good when we give to others and children especially love doing good things for other people.”

Emily encourages people to become “conscious buyers” this festive season and to continue this habit into the New Year.

“Every time you buy something, consciously think about whether you need it or not. Think about where that item is coming from and how it is made.

“We talk a lot about packaging but how something is made and how far it travelled to get to the shop shelf impacts our environment.

“It’s a complicated subject and it is easy to become overwhelmed so it’s just about doing your best.

“Buy local where you can. Price wise, that might not be possible, but you will get better quality food if you buy locally.”

Emily added: “If everyone does a little bit, we will make a huge difference to our environment and to the relationships and friendships we have with others.

“Make changes for the better where you can. Conscious buying and giving time instead of things will benefit everyone.”

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