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She always tries to cycle everywhere and makes sure she recycles everything ... it’s the baglady

Shirley Lewis, from Ballymena, is making a big push this week to stir us into action to save the planet. But, she tells Marie Foy, we need to be quick about it ...

Some people might say Shirley Lewis — also known as Baglady— is a bit eccentric.

After all, it's not everyone who would dress up in an array of plastic bags and parade in front of a class of children in gales of laughter. Never mind their bemused teachers. Yet if that's what it takes to save the planet, then Shirley's the woman for the job.

Needless to say, the writer, broadcaster and film-maker is extremely passionate about the environment. “I have an unbearably positive attitude, but that is me,” she says by way of explaining her quirky antics.

Shirley has always been fascinated by the world around her, but two things in particular have made her appreciate Mother Earth even more. The first was an horrendous accident — she crashed a motorbike she was driving when she was a young woman, which broke her back and nearly killed her. That made her view the world with fresh eyes. “I had a terrible accident in which I nearly died. I was in hospital for six weeks. My accident maybe threw a switch, I can’t be pessimistic for long, I appreciate my life. A lot of other people can relate to that.”

Then there was the place where she spent 20 years of her life, Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, a stunning World Heritage Area and national park west of Sydney, Australia. “It is part of the reason I am so inspired with what I do. When you live in a such a fabulous place it rubs off on you,” she says.

When she turned 50, Shirley decided to make a special vow — to devote 20 years of her life to inspiring people to look after “this beautiful planet”, so now she spends her time encouraging us all to do one simple thing to make for a better world.

“It's about how to live on this planet and it isn't a minute too soon to get stuck in to fix it. You have to stop talking about things and start doing them,” she urges.

“For example we need to grow much more of our own food. That’s crucial. My local greengrocer had to buy carrots from China for four months last year because there were none here.

“I am very, very alarmed at what is going on this planet. It has been reported that there is a lump of rubbish the size of the US floating in the Pacific off the coast of California. That is a terrifying concept. I want to wake people up and motivate them to take action.”

Almost 15 years after making her pledge, the Ballymena woman is as driven as ever about her mission. These days the 64-year-old lives life as sustainably as she can. That means having no car, travelling mainly by bike, on foot or public transport. She doesn't have an oil tank, a printer or mobile phone and avoids packaging where possible.

“I do need someone to take over my work though,” she laughs. “I can’t keep on gadding about the countryside on public transport for much longer.”

Over the last nine years Shirley has been responsible for a number of environmental projects and has visited more than 200 local schools, persuading children to not only think about the environment but do something about it.

This week she is organising KIDs Pledge ASAP Week and is asking children and young people to look at their own lifestyles and promise to live As Sustainably As Possible by “giving up one thing and taking up one thing”.

It could mean not dropping litter, wasting water when brushing their teeth or leaving appliances on standby. Or they could start cycling more, recycling more and using reusable bags. The event finishes with Pledge Day on Monday, Midsummer's Day, when schoolchildren from all over the province will go to Stormont to tell their MLAs what they have done, and ask them what they are prepared to do. Simple really.

Shirley has won accolades for her work from TV presenter Eamonn Holmes, Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan, comedian Nuala McKeever, the late Body Shop founder Anita Ruddick (who called the Baglady a “work of art”) as well as a plethora of local politicians. “A lot of people think this doesn't apply to them but it's up to every individual to do their bit,” she insists.

She adds: “The children and teachers I am meeting at the moment are so inspiring and keen. I believe we are at the point of a great leap forward, there is something extraordinary going on. “I like to give the kids a vision of what could be and those I meet all want to save the world.

“They say things that are truly imaginative and wonderful. More than 300 kids have already signed the pledge and the ball is rolling.”

Born in Belfast, Shirley grew up in Ballymena. As a young woman she emigrated to Australia with her new Aussie husband. Her marriage didn't last long, but she stayed down under and her sons Joe (38) and Nick (26) were born there.

She has had a varied career, working as a journalist, teaching English to migrants, and for 20 of her 30 years in Australia she was an acupuncturist. In 1990 she published a booked called Notes on my Madness, and she made two films about Aborigines. Then she launched Australia's first nationwide campaign against the excessive use of plastic bags.

In 2001, she returned to Ballymena to care for her parents. Her 91-year-old father, retired consultant surgeon Mr Bill Laird, lives near her in Gracehill.

Back at home she began filming along the banks of the river Maine between Cullybackey and Galgorm.

“It is a stunning stretch of the river and what do people do but drop rubbish along it. I started to pick it up and then filmed it,” she says.

She took the film to Ballymena council and it was used to launch an environmental project at the town's Ecos Centre in 2003 and 2004.

Shirley also piloted a successful NEEDabag? scheme, appealing to shop staff to ask their customers if they really needed a bag.

The campaign became very popular in 2004 and helped reduce new bag use by up to 40% in some parts of Northern Ireland.

Ever the optimist, Shirley adds: “I definitely detect a shift in consciousness. I know people are going to get onboard now.”

For more information about Baglady log onto www.bagladyproductions.org

Don’t bin it, re-use it

Local charity Bryson House’s top recycling tips for the summer

  • Re-use probiotic yoghurt drink bottles when camping for washing up liquid, cooking oil, shower gel etc
  • Send old winter clothes to local charity shops or recycle in your kerbside box
  • At barbecues, recycle all glass bottles, jars, cans and plastic bottles. Take waste home
  • For picnics, prepare food at home and choose loose fruit and vegetables rather than buying food in disposable packaging
  • Recycle batteries from holiday/camping equipment
  • Recycle ‘throw away’ holiday items like old clothes, swimwear, books, magazines, and empty |suntan lotion bottles
  • Use recycling bins at festivals

For more advice on recycling visit Bryson’s website at www.bryson recycling.co.uk .

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