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‘Imperfect’ sustainability is still sustainability

‘Imperfect’ sustainability is still sustainability

15 June 22
 | 12 MINS

Medical Student Sophie O’Byrne, winner of the 2021 Student Sustainability Leadership Award, discusses her take on sustainability and the changes she’d like to see in the healthcare industry.

Sophie O’Byrne is a fourth year Medicine student at NUI Galway and winner of the 2021 Student Sustainability Leadership Award. She also developed the Student Sustainability Toolkit.

Here, she talks to fellow student, Tiffany Greenwaldt-Simon about how she works to integrate sustainable practices into her daily life as much as possible, and why she’s advocating for change in healthcare sustainability practices.


What led you to get involved in sustainability and climate action? 

Growing up, my grandfather was a huge inspiration to me in terms of sustainability. He was very conscious about waste; he never wasted food (ever!), was great for DIYing, didn’t overconsume, valued quality over quantity and saw the value in the possessions he owned. I find it so interesting how in the past, people were so much less wasteful, because it saved money and things were less plentiful. 

As a primary school student, I got involved in the ‘Green Schools’ initiative and school committees. My school was quite good in terms of trying to get us to have fewer wrappers in our lunchbox – that sort of thing. My interest in sustainability started in those years, but I lost some of that passion in secondary school. 

Then at 17, I got a job in a health shop, which sold lots of zero and low-waste products, like shampoo bars. I remember interacting with customers and learning why they chose those products – that was a learning experience that really cultivated my passion, and I started to implement those changes in my own life. 


How do you maintain a sustainable lifestyle? 

I am not 100% perfect; nobody is. I try, where I can, to implement small changes.  The practices I implement in my everyday life that I believe have the biggest impact in terms of sustainability is eating a plant-based diet and diverting food waste from landfill by composting and reducing food waste, as well as avoiding fast fashion and trying to avoid buying things in the first place by using what I have first. If I am buying something new, I will opt for the eco version where I can. Mainly, I try to reduce my consumption, which is the primary thing I preach. If you don’t need something, don’t buy it.  

Sustainability can look like so many things and will look different for everyone. For example, you don’t need to go out and buy a lovely bamboo lunch box if you already have a plastic one at home that works just fine. Even an empty ice cream tub will do the job of storing leftovers! 

It’s really all about doing what you can – some things are feasible to only some – for instance, cycling to work may not be possible if the roads are unsafe, but if it’s a sunny day and you have a garden it’s really easy to hang out your washing, rather than using the tumble dryer, then do that! 

“There is so much waste in the medical field; it is unbelievable, and it makes me so sad” 

Has studying medicine influenced your outlook on sustainability? 

Studying medicine has made me more aware of waste. When I am at the hospital, I have to wear a disposable mask for infection control. [Surgeons] will use a pair of scissors to cut a bandage, then throw those scissors away, along with every other single tool used in surgery. I understand that it can be difficult or cost-ineffective to sanitise, but in the past, they were a lot better at that.  

There is so much waste in the medical field; it is unbelievable, and it makes me so sad. At the same time, that awareness has pushed me to try my best to offset waste in my life outside of the hospital, and to advocate for change in healthcare. I am currently in a student group in NUI Galway called Irish Doctors for the Environment. We are advocating for change in hospitals and in our medical curriculum, for more education on the effects of climate change. 

I am also involved in NUI Galway’s Sláinte Society – a health promotion society. Health and wellbeing are an important aspect of sustainability. Most of us in the society are nursing or medicine students who recognise the waste associated with healthcare, and are aware that preventative health/ health promotion is much more sustainable. 

“Something I wanted to remove was the social stigma around imperfect lifestyles”   

What inspired you to create the Student Sustainability Toolkit? 

I wanted to provide a resource for students with advice for implementing changes that would help them move towards a more sustainable lifestyle.

Something I wanted to remove was the social stigma around imperfect lifestyles. The idea that if you are not perfect, then there is no point in trying at all. I wanted to emphasise that slight changes really do help, and that is how you start. I thought that something specifically targeted at NUI Galway students would normalise those changes in a helpful way.

I am a creative person, so I really enjoyed designing the toolkit and creating my own little tips and recipes. I also wanted to highlight how broad sustainability is. There is more to it than simply recycling or reducing plastic. Energy, transport and even biodiversity are all factors in sustainability – as well as the reciprocity between our health and the health of the environment. I like to say, ‘You need to take care of yourself, so that you can look after the planet, but you need a healthy planet to be healthy’. This broader approach reflected in NUI Galway’s “learn live lead” sustainability strategy resonates with me.

What was it like winning the 2021 Student Sustainability Leadership Award? 

I saw the opportunity to do the summer internship and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I would love to do that, but the deadline is tomorrow.” I scrapped my plans for a day of studying and wrote this passionate application instead. I was so happy to spend my summer doing something that I care deeply about. I loved that I was helping people, making an impact and educating students and staff about sustainability.

“I will work to be as mindful as possible in my practice. Starting with small steps; using only what is absolutely necessary” 

When you start working in the medical field, do you think you will continue your work in sustainability? 

100%. It is part of who I am at this point. I will work to be as mindful as possible in my practice. Starting with small steps; using only what is absolutely necessary. I will advocate for change wherever I can.

‘Imperfect’ sustainability is still sustainability

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