Special Reports
A special report is content that is edited and produced by the special reports unit within The Irish Times Content Studio. It is supported by advertisers who may contribute to the report but do not have editorial control.

Can rinsing yoghurt cartons actually make a difference?

Ireland has the potential to be a leader rather than a laggard in changing individual behaviours

You might grimly spit out your decomposing paper straw, diligently rinse out your yogurt cartons, and try to car pool or cycle when you make your twice-weekly trip to the office.

But with the scale of the climate change problem beyond many of our imaginations, how much impact can our individual actions have? Especially when our own carbon footprints are relatively small in comparison to those sectors and industries leaving carbon craters?

The cliche is true, however – every little bit helps. “What you do as an individual is relatively small, but all those small things add up,” says Paula Carroll, associate professor in the School of Business at University College Dublin.

“I understand certain sectors grumbling when they look elsewhere and see massive emissions and seemingly little change happening, such as the farmers. But the thing is, it all has to be done.”


In some cases the technology has already done some of the work for us. Carroll notes that you can no longer buy incandescent lightbulbs, as they have been replaced by low-wattage LED bulbs that use a fraction of the electricity. “That’s a small change by everyone that has really added up.”

Tara Shine is co-founder of the social enterprise Change by Degrees, which advises on sustainability. The environmental scientist is also the author of the book How to Save Your Planet One Object at a Time. Shine agrees that people can often feel “overwhelmed” in the face of a disaster on the scale of climate change.

“If you are told that there is a major crisis but then you are told that there is nothing you can do about it, you feel overwhelmed and powerless,” she says. “But there is a major emergency when it comes to the climate so the best thing is to know what it is you can do about it and what action you can take to make things better.”

According to Shine, every action taken by an Irish person can have a significant impact. “As a wealthy country, we are one of the biggest consumers in Europe,” she notes. “And because we consume lots of stuff – energy, food, products – our individual actions do have a big impact, so changing our behaviours is worthwhile.”

Carroll agrees. “Here in Ireland, we have the potential to be leaders rather than laggards.”

There needs to be mechanisms in place to make it easier for consumers to both be aware of the consequences of their action but also to be able to participate in a cleaner option

—  Paula Carroll, University College Dublin

Yet Shine says that not only must we take individual steps – whether it is fitting solar panels, buying an electric car, or choosing not to travel on long-haul flights – we must amplify the effect of these by discussing these changes with our peer group. “We know that people are more likely to listen to their friends or families rather than climate experts or politicians when it comes to making changes like this. Even something just as simple as using a keep cup or cycling to work – people will be influenced by you and be encouraged to follow your lead.”

But according to Carroll, the right policies and incentives must be in place to encourage people to take those individual actions. “There needs to be motivation to change your heating system or change your diesel car for an electric one. When it comes to avoiding fast fashion you can just decide not to buy the clothing, but you still need to heat your home and get your kids to and from school,” she says. “There needs to be mechanisms in place to make it easier for consumers to both be aware of the consequences of their action but also to be able to participate in a cleaner option.”

Shine also points out that by exercising our rights and our voice, we can also have an indirect impact on climate change. “Some things are within our power, but for those that aren’t, such as with your vote, for example, that can have a big impact without costing you anything,” she says.

People should not underestimate the power of their individual choices, she stresses. “For example, using a paper straw is not as significant as looking at what your pension is invested in or thinking about getting a green mortgage rather than a traditional one, or looking into a retrofit of your house. That can have the impact of a million paper straws.”

Danielle Barron

Danielle Barron is a contributor to The Irish Times