Going Green with Grace

By - Wednesday 22nd May, 2013

In the second in her series of interviews with people making a difference in Croydon, Liz Sheppard-Jones talks to Old Town resident and eco-champion Grace Onions

Eco-champion Grace Onions and her daughter Aoife

Back in 2005, you couldn’t recycle a battery in Croydon. As a mum with two pre-schoolers, I felt I should try my best for the environment, but how? Then a school-gate conversation produced a lead. There’s a lady round the corner, I was told, who runs her own battery-recycling scheme. And that was how I met Grace Onions.

Know your Onions

As it turned out, Grace also recycled plastic bottles for the householders in her street before facilities to do so were available across the borough. Eight years on, she has achieved national recognition for her Green activism. Winner of the Croydon Eco Citizen award in 2008, she has featured on Croydon Radio and in 2013 she made the national final shortlist for the World Wildlife Fund’s Hidden Heroes award.

A member of Croydon Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the Pesticides Action Network, the Soil Association, and the Women’s Environmental Network among others, for the last six years she has run the Croydon Real Nappy Network with fellow campaigner Kat Pond. CRNN provides and teaches new parents to use real nappies as a practical and money-saving alternative to disposables, and won the title of Croydon Green Project of the Year in 2007.

CRNN regularly puts displays of its eye-catching products at Croydon Visitor Centre where Alvin Shivmangal, the Centre’s manager, reports that CRNN receives the highest number of enquiries for any organisation exhibiting. This enthusiastic response demonstrates the demand for such services – people will take action on environmental messages when the means to do so is offered to them. In time-pressed and increasingly cash-strapped modern lives, it’s making that practical connection that counts.

Saving the world from the bottom up: Real Nappies

A confession – while I understand the risks to our planet, the scale of the problem makes me feel small and futile. I find myself wondering what difference I can really make. I’m sure I am one of millions fretting over our waste-generating, petrol-head ways, knowing we should try harder, but… well, there’s always a ‘but’. Grace clearly doesn’t feel like this, and when we meet at the beginning of April, I want to discover what drives her.

It scarcely needs saying that Grace believes passionately in the mantra: Think global, act local. Croydon is her locality and she sees the difference she can make in her immediate surroundings as part of a larger whole. When I ask her about the bigger picture it’s noticeable that she remains specific, not lamenting widespread eco-catastrophe or predicting climate change, but describing a train journey she took during her travels in India.

Drinks were traditionally served on the trains in terracotta cups which could be used then discarded out of the window and ground harmlessly into the land around the railway line. Grace noticed that as progress replaced terracotta with polystyrene, people continued to discard the beakers as they had always been able to. Now the polystyrene is an eco-hazard – unsightly, carcinogenic, persisting indefinitely, and forming a significant part of the debris which clogs the oceans.

It’s a specific and powerful illustration of the impact of modern technology which stayed with her when she returned to the UK.

Think globally, act Croydon

Grace’s travels were not enjoyed via the privilege of a university gap year. A number of high-profile Greens are wealthy, even aristocratic, and this can give the party an unfortunate aura of elitism as a cause espoused only by those who can afford to do so. Grace is a ground-level campaigner who unlike Prince Charles rinses her own tins for recycling. Born in rural Ireland without the social and material advantages of a Lord Melchett or George Monbiot, it’s not just her Real Nappy Network that works to save the planet from the bottom up. It’s Grace herself.

Exploring the world as a young adult, she met a fellow traveller who had studied later in life rather than as a school-leaver and was inspired to gain her degree in Environmental Conservation from Birkbeck College, part of the University of London, in 2000. The births of her two daughters in 2001 and 2003 robbed her of time but further inspired her – as for many of us, it’s the prospect of our children’s struggles in a future of climate change chaos which brings the subject truly into focus. For the last twelve years she has worked on the ground in her community, leading by example and making practical support for the environment possible for others by the actions she has taken.

Grace’s World Wildlife Fund shortlisting, as well as giving her the recognition she deserves, raises her profile in Croydon and allows her positive environmental message to reach a larger audience.

Doing good business

For the last two and a half years, Croydon Real Nappy Network’s fantastic nappy voucher scheme to help families get started has been funded by Grassroots Grants, Team London, and the Co-operative Bank. CRNN is now talking to Croydon Commitment and searching for a new sponsor. If any Croydon business can help with this, please email

How to be green in Croydon: Grace Onions’s tips to change the world, starting right here 

  • Change your mindset to planet-friendly instead of me, me, me : this can seem hard at first but will get easier with practice
  • Stop wasting food by getting smart about sell-by dates which can encourage us to throw away edible produce. Before you chuck it – smell it, taste it, and use your common sense
  • Grow your own food: if you don’t have a garden or space is limited, why not think about getting an allotment?
  • If you have babies or toddlers, find out about using real nappies
  • Oppose the Beddington Lane incinerator: Grace’s view on this hottest-of-hot local topics can be found on the Stop The Incinerator campaign website

The power of positive change

Grace’s big piece of advice is to always consider the alternative. Whatever you are doing in Croydon, there may be another other way to do it that cares for the Earth. Keep in mind that you are not helpless: you are one of many people who together can be a force for positive change. Small individual actions can unleash great power.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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