by Amy Donohoe.
I sat down with Mindy and reflected on the past quarter century at VOICE; the highs, lows and her love of trash talk.
Three stories up, in a building off Marrion Square, sits the VOICE office. As I approached the door I could hear the familiar American lilt of VOICE’s chief executive Mindy O’Brien.
On the wall hangs a hand-painted timeline of VOICE’s achievements in its first fifteen-year infancy, posters from the noughties pepper the walls and a 2019 Green award sits proudly on the mantelpiece. Straight away there is a feeling of roots here. Of an organisation that has served its time in Ireland.
If ever in doubt of the impact one person can make, we should look to Mindy as an example of how one person really can make a huge difference.
There is no time wasted for Mindy, before I could catch my breath (those stairs were unexpected) Mindy dives into her perspective on what has to happen in Ireland.
‘There is a gap’, she tells me ‘between climate awareness and climate action, this must start on a personal level as the actions of one person can make a huge difference’. With her target set she tells me “I want to close the gap between awareness and action. Everyone is aware of climate change, limited resources, carbon emissions and how much plastic we’re producing, but we need personal action, we need behaviour change at industry, individual and government level”.
But is it all down to the individual, I ask?
“The government has a huge role to play, they have policy power. If they change, that will support the development of this industry.”
I’m interested to know how a person from Michigan ends up leading one of Ireland longest running Environmental NGO’s? Let’s take you back to the beginning of the story.
Mindy graduated from law school with an environmental certificate in 1993 from the US and from 1993-1996, she was the legislative director for a Member of Congress, specialising in waste and water legislation as well as overseeing a team of five legislative assistants.
In 1997, she moved to Ireland with her husband and six-month-old son. One day while at the local GP’s, she spotted an article about the environmental organisation in a magazine, moved by the work VOICE was doing she picked up the phone to volunteer, and the rest is history.
“We moved here in June 1997 and VOICE just launched. I thinkI saw an article about the launch in a doctor's waiting room. I previously worked in environmental policy in Congress in the States and I wanted to volunteer because they were working on water issues. So I initially volunteered one day a week.”
Over the years VOICE covered many issues, from forestry, to water, from ocean to air. However, their greatest achievement has to be the plastic bag levy, because Ireland eventually had the capacity to influence behaviour at an international level, and it’s mainly because of VOICE.
“The plastic bag levy was something VOICE pushed for and now it’s a good initiative around the world. It’s something the Irish are known for because we were the first to do it. The impact was great and we reduced plastic bags,” Mindy tells me.
“Now VOICE is at the forefront of waste prevention and waste policy, we’re one of the few national organisations working on this area specifically. I’ve always maintained that to be successful we have to do this in a top-down and bottom- up way. Influencing policy but also supporting local groups who want to move away from the traditional take-make-waste economy”.
“It’s important to engage people, win their hearts and minds and change their behaviour so they will contact their TDs and get involved. We’ve developed so much at VOICE, and learned that it’s important to be in the room and in the process and find a way forward rather than complaining and being angry.”
Over the twenty-five years, there were twists and turns along the way for Mindy and her team as they, like many, struggled during the pandemic.
“It was scary at the beginning of the pandemic because we didn’t know if we could do our work, if our funding would come in, if our donations would dry up. A lot of our work is outreach with people and engagement and we didn’t know if we could do that”.
“But we’ve a fantastic team and a government that is more receptive to environmental issues, especially what we work for in VOICE, waste prevention, and the circular economy. We work very well with Minister Ryan and Smyth and we are very proud of all of our many achievements.”
“During COVID food waste probably went down, it was hard at the beginning because people binge-bought out of fear. Being at home, you opened up your presses a lot and didn’t want to go to the shops so people were a bit more considerate when they cooked from home.
“We noticed that during the pandemic many people changed their habits. People shopped online and as a result there was a huge increase in packaging waste associated with all the e-commerce. There were also a lot of food takeaways that resulted in single-use containers being delivered which is a challenge for us. We had made great strides with the ConsciousCup Campaign encouraging the use of reusable cups but lots of cafés stopped accepting reusable cups because of virus concerns.”
“We’re slowly recovering now but since COVID there’s been a huge increase in the amount of food wrapped in plastic and the use of disposables have increased, including masks, PPE, gloves and wipes that has also increased a lot of waste. It will be a challenge moving forward which we will have to reverse majorly.”
Mindy always remains diligent, and in recent years her work has been recognised as VOICE Ireland continues to grow because of the team's hard efforts to save the planet.
They have worked on many different issues over the years, including water, forestry, GMOs and climate change, but lately, the primary focus has been on, sustainability, plastic, consumption and production and the circular economy.
She said: “Up until two years ago people didn’t understand the extent of the problems, but in the last three or four years we’re having more of an impact. We have a bigger team, which allows us to go more in-depth on serious topics. As one person I was doing waste and water, but now ten people are just doing waste. It’s never been busier. We are making a big difference now.
Mindy went on to say “young people have great power and access to information; this has opened up the dialog for discussions with environmentalists on climate change, now we need real and meaningful action by business and industry. VOICE’s challenge is that we’re working in plastic consumption, so we need to get the message out there that it’s linked to climate change.
"Almost 50% of Greenhouse gases are associated with making, using and disposing of things. It is VOICE’s mission to connect those dots."
It is obvious how passionate Mindy is about the potential for a truly circular economy. She wants VOICE to be known for being the impetus for systematic change in the way we consume and change public consumer demands, by looking to buy the product, not the packaging.
We can see more and more products being over-packaged and using an increasing amount of plastic. Our fresh fruit and vegetable section of the supermarket has an abundance of plastic. Our streets and beaches are littered with drinks containers and food packaging and more recently, face coverings.
We need to make urgent changes to reduce unwanted waste, starting with the manufacturers and retailers selling us products.
“It’s a slow process, we don’t want climate change, we want system change. We need system management in the circular economy,” she added.
“We need to revive the system and make it easy for individuals to make the right decisions by providing reusable packaging for coffee cups, and food packaging. By installing more water fountains and vending machines where you can get flavored water, asking customers to refill their own bottles.
‘I want to buy the product, not the packaging’.
“I want to buy the product, not the packaging. We need places to rent packaging, bring our own and get rewarded for it. We need tomake it easy for the consumer, there needs to be less packaging when shopping and more refillables.
“Supermarkets need to change their practices and this is where politics comes in, they won’t do it unless the government says they have to. Shops need to be refillable.”
VOICE advocates for the government and the corporate sector to adopt environmentally responsible behaviours, and for the development of strong national policies on waste and water issues, and Mindy has played a huge part in making changes, at local, national and international levels.
The passion from Mindy is palpable. This year it is with a heavy heart that we say goodbye to Mindy as she retires from her role as Chief Executive. If ever in doubt of the impact one person can make, we should look to Mindy as an example of how one person really can make a huge difference.