Carbon-neutral living

Environmental consultant Donnachadh McCarthy talks to the Weekender about green living, one step at a time.

It was a trip to the Amazon that really changed the way Donnachadh McCarthy viewed the world. The 53 year-old was a ballet dancer in the early ‘90s until he was injured in a dramatic accident after hitting the stage from 12 feet after diving off a man’s shoulders and not being caught properly. During his recovery his therapist invited him to the Amazon where he spent a month with the Yanomami Indians, an experience that triggered an enormous change in his lifestyle.

“They had huge problems with disease and land being invaded and I came back to London pretty gutted about it all; it just changed my life and I resolved to do whatever I could to stop England being such a destructive consumer society,” he recalls. “We need to go back to the source of the problem but you can’t tell people we’re destroying the planet if you’re not doing anything about it,” he says.
“My house is a living, breathing example of what I do”.

In 1999 Irish national Donnachadh installed London’s first grid connected solar panels onto his Victorian terrace house in Camberwell. He describes it as a major breakthrough after negotiations with his electricity company meant that he didn’t have to install a battery to operate the solar electric system and that any excess energy he produced could go onto the grid, which supplies national demand. Five year later he installed solar panels to produce hot water.

Having a digital display on his wall that monitors his electricity usage has made him increasingly efficient and for the last ten years Donnachadh has produced and exported more electricity than he imports.

Instead of central heating he has a wood-burner and only uses waste wood. “In this area there’s always skips of wood lying around; I don’t have a car so I just pick up wood as I see it when I’m walking to pick up the newspaper,” he says.

He also uses a large aluminium copper kettle to heat water for cooking and washing dishes. A rain water tank captures water on his roof, which flushes his toilets and comes through a tap for washing food and shaving.

Waste disposal is something Donnachadh is particularly passionate about; he hasn’t had a wheelie bin since 1996. A fervent composter, he avoids using disposable materials to begin with. “I shop at Peckham’s farmer’s market and at the Fare Shares Co-Operative in Clampton St where I buy organic fruit, vegetables, muesli, nuts and you can bring your own jars and Tupperware containers and avoid the pointless waste of packaging,” he says.

“Even recycling costs money; up to 30 percent of Southwark’s council tax is spent on waste, which is really unnecessary when you think that we’re cutting back social services for the elderly and the poor to subsidize Sainsbury’s disposing of their waste”.

Last year Donnachadh’s gas bill was £20, his water bill on top of standing charge is £10 a year, he is neutral on electricity and he uses 16 litres of mains water a day, with the rest being rain water. To put this in context the average person in Britain uses over 160 litres of water a day.

An area he is trying to improve on is food, admitting “I’m not the best vegetable grower. You really are at the mercy of the climate”. Already Donnachadh has a vegetable and fruit garden growing apples, pears, plums, quince, strawberries, raspberry, citrus fruits, wild garlic, chai, mint, coriander, Spanish chard and rocket. “With most of these they’re zero work, you plant them and they just grow back every year,” he explains.

The environmentalist also doesn’t drive or own a car, instead he opts for cycling from A to B on his trusty fold-up bike, which is also convenient for taking on the train when he has to travel across the country.

As a vegetarian, Donnachadh doesn’t condone meat-eating and says just cutting back slightly on meat intake can make a huge difference. “If you switch to two vegetarian meals a week you can save about two tonnes of carbon, which is significant”. Meat is responsible for eighteen percent of carbon emissions compared to the aviation industry, which is accountable for three to five percent.

It can be daunting to imagine a sustainable lifestyle, but Donnachadh believes it’s completely possible for people to live the same quality of life using 80 percent less resources than we currently do. And it’s not just about making big dramatic changes either. “Toothbrushes represent my philosophy,” Donnachadh begins. While most people throw out the whole toothbrush when it’s worn out Donnachadh just disposes the head and keeps the same handle for years. “If you think about 60 million people throwing away whole brushes every three months you can see how you can make a real difference with something seemingly tiny,” he says.

“We’re in a major emergency mode for the safety of our planet and this applies to people in Lambeth and Southwark as much as in Africa. It’s really crucial we all do something about this, in the home, in the work place and as a wider community”.


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