Cycling for Zero Waste: Observations by Niall After his Adventure

Niall has now completed his journey on wheels and what an adventure it was! We have been fascinated by his stories and observations and it is our absolute pleasure to be able to share with you all an article he wrote for our blog. We are even discussing the possibility of a “part 2 adventure” in the summer months, when the weather will be less challenging. Thank you to Niall for his efforts and for the great connections he has made for us along the way!

Tour Sum Up by Niall Quinn

I just cycled through 5 counties, over exactly 3 weeks, shopping, talking, promoting, and learning about sustainable living in Ireland along the way. Admittedly, a little mad for the end of Autumn, but the motivations behind this were as follows: I had just returned from Aotearoa/New Zealand, where I spent a year working at a recycling and reuse centre (Wastebusters). Sounds glamorous, I know, but the work and community of like-minded people brought new fulfilment into my life. Here, individuals worked together towards a collective goal of reducing, reusing and recycling waste, educating the community, and looking after each other and our place for a better future. I especially admired the Māori values that tell us to be protectors/guardians of the land we inhabit. This experience taught me to see nature in a new light, inspired my own choices and changes, and made me eager to know what was being done in my homeland.

As I sit now, drinking tea, letting the dust settle and memories flow, it feels as if this trip never happened. It’s now a collection of beautiful daydreams, and I smile thinking of the smell of turf on country roads, and seaweed from beach detours; sights of green fields, grey stone, black loughs, and apathetic cow faces, as well as cloud covered and mossy mounds, the wild Atlantic, and more apathetic cows. I came head to head with many a tractor, pothole and the innumerable varieties of rain we are so proud of in Ireland. Thin, misty rain; rotund, loud rain; head on and sideways rain, and “Is it rain??…she’s teasing us” rain. I learnt to make peace with this early. This allowed me to relax and move easier. Not resisting a storm is a nice metaphor for life I’ve realised, and with every wet spell comes many, many rainbows, as anyone in the West will know.

I was merely there to listen and learn. This, along with copious amounts of coffee and peanut butter, kept me going. And though my eyes dried out, and legs ached, and I’d shiver when the wind blew through sweat soaked layers, I was always drowned with a flood of gratitude when the sun would eventually show its head through the dark clouds; which it always does.

Interestingly, I was quite social even after a day’s ride. Turns out that a number of hours with your own thoughts on a bike will make even the most introverted person desperate for human interaction. Staying well fed was a big priority, but living the low waste lifestyle while doing this proved difficult. I do believe there are ways of achieving a fully ‘zero waste’ bike trip, but I unfortunately was not able to do that. Before leaving, I had prepped and already had a number of essentials for a low waste trip – homemade snacks, eco and recyclable toiletries, my own takeaway cup, tupperware and water bottles – but when you arrive in a small town, exhausted after cycling 70km, you are a slave to convenience, and a wrapped takeaway sandwich and a snickers are a must for immediate calories.

Along with this, even when I could cook for myself, buying non-plastic covered fruit and veg, and refilling dried foods etc., the majority of hostels don’t have a food waste bin, or even a recycling bin! It pained me having to throw food scraps in general waste, and I will admit, I have bin hoked to save some recyclables from landfill along the trip. It is difficult to live this way in Ireland. One of the main barriers for me while on this trip, and I think for others is that, there’s much more thinking involved. There are very little minimal thought and minimal waste options for a cheap on the go lunch. Deli’s are there, but a lot are sparse in providing for the gluten free and vegan. Cafes are also an option, but for those on a budget and little time, convenience seems to triumph. I hope that soon it won’t be a novelty or surprise when someone asks for a salad in their own takeaway container, or a coffee in their own cup. Anyway, I was able to give myself a break after a while. I tried my best and that’s all any of us can do.

As a trip, I encourage everyone to do it. Not necessarily the cycling, though it’s pretty great, and addictive once you get going, but to see your country at a slow pace. I know it’ll sound mad, but I could honestly feel each county’s unique spirit as I cycled across the borders. I was constantly observing and assessing, seeing and hearing change in obvious ways (accents, slang), but more subtly, in how each county builds a stone wall. I met all sorts of characters (and there were many), admired the style and stories of pubs (also many). I got A LOT of looks. Looks of disgust, of worry, confusion, but also interest and kindness. A real insight into people’s thoughts came when I told them why I was doing what I was. Some responding with a simple, yet dismissive, ‘oh right’, coupled with a nose turned up, but others with wide-eyed encouragement and questions. On the rides, I would always get the classic finger lifted from the steering wheel, but occasionally a complete stop and offering of directions and recommendations. I stayed in hostels, when available, camped twice, and was given a sofa bed from a gang of mad Westmeath holidaymakers. We ate Mexican food and watched ‘Love is Blind’; it was fantastic. I also used a long-running hospitality exchange for touring cyclists called ‘Warmshowers’, whereby hosts offer free accommodation, more if they so choose, for cyclists on the road. It’s a great system built on kindness and sharing of experiences. I stayed with two beautiful couples using this, both offering different perspectives and amazing stories from the cycle touring world and their lives.

I learnt a lot of new Irish on this trip, now using cúpla focal every day, and made a new friend from America, whom I’m still in contact with. All of this, the stories, people and place, adds fuel to the fire, and gives me goosebumps just reading it back.

If anyone might be considering a trip similar to this, I’d recommend:

  • Snacks on hand – dark chocolate, peanut butter, nuts, mixture of all that into homemade energy balls;
  • A flask for hot drinks – a sip of even pure hot water will satisfy you in the cold, and;
  • Nose breathing – no really, nose breathing encourages deeper diaphragmatic breathing, which oxygenates more blood and also releases nitric oxide, which lowers blood pressure and allows you to be calmer while riding.

Eat before you’re hungry, and drink before you’re thirsty. Keep an open mind and smile through the storm. Smile in general.

So much was talked about on this trip. I spoke with a total of 10 shop owners, among other active members of the communities, in towns, cities and villages. Conversations centred very much around a few topics; COVID recovery and responses (especially for businesses established over the past 3 years); the importance of education, transparent communication and understanding of sustainable living and its benefits; the privilege that comes with being able to shop sustainably, and; how the use of the term ‘zero waste’ can intimidate those attempting to make changes. This I found very interesting, some shops avoiding the use of the term all together in their advertising; more opting for “plastic free grocery” or “low waste shopping”. This they thought eases people into the lifestyle better, and doesn’t put the ambitious expectation on them of shopping completely zero waste from the get go.

A number of places also included the fact that this way of living isn’t new. It was only a generation ago that people would be shopping at their local, knowing the owner, filling and weighing paper bags while having the chats. I’m glad I got to do this, and hear what these people had to say, I just hope it can be heard elsewhere and aided. Whoevers eyes this may reach, I admire and encourage you to continue spreading the message of this lifestyle. Though it can be defeating and discouraging to not be received or seen, educating with compassion and patience, I believe, is the way.

I am home now, and in many ways for the first time, reflecting on a challenging and confronting, yet beautiful and fun experience of seeing Éire in its wild Autumnal glory.

Slán Go Fóill!