Reduce the plastic mountain

The Theatre Forum-TheatreNI conference starts today in the beautiful Lyric Theatre in Belfast. The title of the conference is Intersections and there will be discussions on borders, gender equality and arts policy. There’s also a Fun Palaces workshop with Stella Duffy for community groups, after the conference ends on Thursday. I’m a big fan of Fun Palaces – I wrote about it here – and would love to see one in Dublin. You can find the full Conference Programme here.

There’s also a session on climate change, another topic close to my heart. In order to walk the walk, as well as talk the talk the organisers are working to reduce the waste produced by the conference. This means less conference materials, proper dishes used for the catering and instead of a conference bag and printed material, each delegate will get a reusable take-away glass Keep Cup. I love this idea. Waste reduction is so important, particularly plastic which does not decompose for thousands of years. The way we use plastic now – bags, take-away cups, straws, fruit in plastic trays – is learned behaviour, which means that we can unlearn it and start doing things differently. There has been a shift in attitude towards plastic waste this year with things like the Shop & Drop event in April when shoppers were encouraged to leave all their waste behind at the supermarket and the recent EU’s proposal to ban single-use plastic.

It’s not going to be easy – once you start looking, you realise plastic is everywhere – but it’s not impossible. Here are some of the things I’ve been doing to use less plastic this year.

1. I don’t have a Keep Cup because I don’t drink much takeaway coffee, but I do have a fancy glass water bottle. It’s a bit heavier than plastic but I don’t have to worry that chemicals are leaching out of the plastic and into my water! Emboldened by the Refill Project, I’ve often asked staff in bars and restaurants to refill it for me and they’ve always obliged. (These weren’t places on the Refill map, the project just made me feel more comfortable about asking for free water.)

The only place I don’t take it is the airport because I don’t think they’d let me bring glass on the plane. However I have learnt that you are allowed bring empty bottle through security and fill them up at the water fountains on the other side.

2. I switched from hand-wash to solid soap. It instantly cuts down on the amount of plastic coming into the house and ending up in the sea. Bí Urban on Manor Street in Stonybatter do a nice soap which they make using oils discarded in local food production, which is just a little bit Fight Club. It’s a real feel good soap because it’s zero waste and it’s locally made.

3. I started using a bamboo toothbrush. This will make you feel like a bit of a hippy but it’s also a very easy way to reduce plastic and you stop noticing the difference after a few days. (It does feel a bit weird at first!) I got mine in Bí Urban but they are available online as well.

4. I’ve been using more Lush products in their reuseable plastic pots. Some people are very anti-Lush. The strong smell, the bright colours and the overly enthusiastic staff are all too much for them. I have never bought a bath-bomb in my life but I love Lush for their reusable pots. For that it’s worth letting them bombard my senses for a few minutes. They take the pots back off you and reuse them again and again. If you bring back five, you can swap them for a free face mask.

5. I originally started buying stuff from Lush because you can take their solid face-wash and shampoo bars in your hand-luggage when you fly. They also have zero packaging. I love their Angels on Bare Skin face wash and I’ve used Godiva shampoo as well; the jasmine smell is really lovely. I also restarted started using a solid deodorant, I’m not sure how effective it is but it does involve zero plastic!

6. Away from the personal hygiene plastics, there’s the food plastic. I think supermarkets are slowly coming around to the idea that everything doesn’t need to be wrapped in plastic and you can get loose fruit and veg in most shops now. Just because they little plastic bags there, doesn’t mean you have to use them. You can just put six oranges and four apples and a couple of potatoes into your basket! There are also some places like Small Changes in Drumcondra and the Dublin Co-op in The Liberties that are cutting out the plastic used for things like raisins and lentils and pasta. They ask you to bring your own containers and just fill ’em up.

7. Most of these alternatives do cost a bit more than the plastic-wrapped version. I think costs will come down as it becomes more common to ditch plastic, but if you don’t have the extra cash there are still ways to cut down on your plastic just by being generally more aware of what you’re buy. Bring a bag with you, avoid straws and plastic cutlery if you can, avoid things with an excess of plastic like ready meals or salads in giant plastic bowls.

Fun Palaces

Devoted and Disgruntled is an annual Open Space meeting for theatre artists, organised by Improbable in London. At a D&D meeting in January 2013, Stella Duffy raised the topic of doing something to mark Joan Littlewood’s centenary in October 2014. That idea led to a session at the meeting, a few emails and tweets were sent out and it started to grow. It kept growing and growing to become Fun Palaces, a weekend of community based artistic endeavours, held in more than 130 locations all over the United Kingdom and in France, Iceland and Belgium. (How Did Fun Palaces Begin? blog post by Stella Duffy.)

Joan Littlewood, a theatre maker and director in the 1950s and 60s, is probably most well-known for the satirical musical O, What a Lovely War She was also part of an ensemble company, the Theatre Workshop which was a travelling troupe before taking up permanent residence at Stratford East. Their work was left-wing; one of their most famous productions was the British premiere of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children in 1955 and they also championed the work of Brendan Behan. Littlewood was also fiercely interested in community theatre as well as political theatre and wanted to create a theatre of the people, bringing theatre to the streets. In 1961, Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price designed the Fun Palace – a ‘laboratory of fun’ but it never came into being.


For 2014 the Fun Palaces had the tagline “Everyone an artist, Everyone a scientist.” The aim was to bring people from different disciplines together, but more importantly to bring the community into the work. Everyone is welcome, everything is free and a special effort is made to get children involved.

Technology played a big part in getting the 2014 Fun Palaces up and running, in a way that was not possible in 1961. Twitter, email and the internet allowed people to connect with each other, to feel like they were part of a larger community, to find help, advice and encouragement. Despite all the online communication, the work really happened in the individual communities where each Fun Palace was created. There were no boxes to tick or rules to follow so each palace could make whatever it wanted, based on their resources and what their community needed. This resulted in a diverse selection of events. On the website you can search for Fun Palaces under tags such as mermaids, tea, hat-making, dog-walking, robots and much more. I watched the whole thing unfold on Twitter and found it incredibly exciting. I’m sure those we attended or organised events had a fantastic time. It seems like another theme of the weekend was that anyone can make art – there were lots of free workshops and events – and that anyone can run an event, and anyone can change the world in some small way!

The Fun Palaces success story shows what can come from someone having a good idea, sharing it with someone else and allowing that idea growing into something real. I know that’s how everything happens but because I follow Stella Duffy on twitter, I got to see this idea grow in real time and not just see the end result. I also really like the combination between technology and global engagement and the work that was done in local communities. People engaged with the idea and took ownership of it. It would be great to see a Fun Palace in Dublin next year. It might also be a model to follow for the 1916 commemorations next year, a way to engage local communities around the country in building something meaningful in their own community.

“We’ll show politicians that culture is at the heart of the community” by Stella Duffy