I’m disabled & I rely on single-use plastics – Please don’t judge me

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Each month a fellow blogger (A Chronic Voice) hosts a ‘Link-up party’. It is a monthly get-together for anyone with a chronic illness. An opportunity to share, to listen, and to learn from one another. A Chronic Voice provides 5 writing prompts each month, and we use these prompts as inspiration. 

September’s prompts are: Reusing, Recounting, Researching, Finding (and dating).

Many environmental initiatives are inherently ableist, here’s why

Reading through this month’s writing prompts, the one that sparked my interest the most was ‘Reusing’. When I think of ‘reusing’ I automatically turn to the need to reduce single-use plastic, and the detrimental effect plastic has on our oceans. It’s been the subject of many news stories this year, and the target for initiatives like “Plastic free July”. 

Our planet is dying. The climate crisis is very real. We must all take responsibility for our own negative impact on the environment. But what if your chronic illness or disability restricts the positive changes you are able to make? What if current environmental initiatives actually put your safety, and life at risk? 

Reusing

The past year has seen an upsurge in global government initiatives to reduce plastic waste, and the message is very clear: if we want to save the planet, we must all play our part. 

Unfortunately it has become pretty obvious that disabled people were not invited to the table, or even considered, when these law changes were discussed. 

The most predominant scheme has been the ban of disposable plastic straws, and we have seen many countries around the world adopting this new policy, with the England soon to follow suit, in April 2020. 

But this ban has not only put some disabled people’s lives in danger, but has also left them open to targeted ridicule and abuse for standing up for their need to use these products.

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about how the straw ban discriminates against disabled people, or how unsuitable and often harmful the current alternatives are. Many disabled rights activists, who are far more qualified to discuss this than me, have covered this topic. Please watch this informative and entertaining YouTube video by Jessica Kellgren-Fozaed. Also read this article in HuffPost written by Robyn Powell, it explains the situation well.

But I will briefly summarise the problems: 

1. Many disabled people rely on disposable plastic straws, for a multitude of reasons. People who are bedbound, those who have conditions that cause tremors and spasms, those that cannot reposition themselves to drink from cups or tilt their head back, those with compromised immune systems, those with dexterity problems or painful conditions, and many more. This is a great Twitter thread if you would like to find out more. 

2. I know many of you are now screaming: “but there are loads of alternatives to disposable plastic straws”. But although these alternatives exist, they are unsuitable for many disabled people, and can actually cause harm. There was a recent case of a disabled woman who died after she impaled herself on a metal straw. On paper, the best alternative seems to be biodegradable plastic straws. But for many, using these straws can cause severe, life-threatening allergic reactions.

There are many reasons why these alternatives are not suitable. Please listen to disabled people when they say they are not suitable. This is a great table created by Hell on Wheels which summarises the problems.

Image by Hell on Wheels

3. The straw ban does allow for disabled people to request disposable straws while out in restaurants and bars etc, but this has lead to increased abuse and discrimination, from the general public, and restaurant owners in areas where bans are already in place. Many upsetting situations have been reported on Twitter, and these targeted acts of aggression seem to be on the rise. 

4. Disabled people want to be as independent as possible, and the world needs to be more accessible, not less. Disabled people should not have to beg for the use of something that is vital to their everyday life. And they should not have to live in fear of the backlash they receive just from asking for a disposable plastic straw. 

5. Others have stated: if they (disabled people) need disposable plastic straws, then they should provide their own. Sometimes it may be possible to prepare in advance, other times not. Why should a disabled person have to provide their own? Imagine the outcry if non-disabled people were asked to bring their own cutlery with them every time they ate out. 

6. Banning straws won’t save the oceans. And lastly; when compared to global plastic pollution levels, plastic straw consumption is almost negligible. Reports suggest that, globally, straws only account for less than 0.03 per cent of all marine plastic pollution (in terms of weight). Why are disabled people being targeted when there are much more effective ways to tackle plastic pollution? 

Recounting 

I have always been proud to say I play my part in reducing my negative impact on the environment. I have always recycled, used public transport when possible, and I have been very aware of my water consumption, and taken many steps to reduce food waste – amongst other things.

But when my health severely deteriorated 7 years ago, my needs also changed, and this demonstrated to me that it’s not always possible to live in a sustainable way.

To explain my situation with regards to my reliance on single-use plastics, I need to recount my story. 

I am a disabled woman with a number of chronic illnesses (ME/CFS, Fibromyalgia, Migraine, Osteoporosis and IBS). About 7 years ago my health took a sudden downturn, and I became bedbound. I suffer from a multitude of symptoms including chronic pain, dizziness, palpitations, severe fatigue and weakness, violent muscle spasms, tremors and twitches. For all these reasons, I became reliant on plastic straws. And although my health has improved a bit since, and I no longer need straws, I am very aware that I could return to this state at any time. I am also eager to stand up for the many disabled people that rely on these straws. 

But plastic straws are not the only single-use plastic products I rely on:

Pre prepared convenience foods. I cannot prepare food, or cook for myself, so I rely on others. But I spend a lot of time on my own and therefore I need convenient ways to feed myself. Most pre prepared convenience foods sadly come in plastic packaging. Products like these have recently been criticised on social media, with many considering a pre-chopped vegetable or a peeled orange in a plastic container as completely unnecessary – particularly when many fruits and vegetables come with their own natural ‘packaging’. But it’s obvious, yet again, that the needs of disabled people are being ignored. There are thousands of people with disabilities and mobility issues who are reliant on accessible food, not just for convenience, but to survive. 

Disposable plastic cups. I cannot operate the kitchen taps, so carers have to fill plastic cups for me. Why plastic? I cannot lift anything heavier, and due to my compromised immune system, I need these cups to be as sterile as possible – hence disposable plastic cups.

Medication packaging & other medical supplies. Most medication comes in plastic packaging – I cannot escape this. Also many other medical supplies relied on by disabled people, are plastic. 

Internet shopping – excess packaging. I rely on Internet shopping, and home deliveries for all my needs. And sadly many companies are not playing their part. The amount of plastic, non recyclable, or excess packaging used is frustrating.

Supermarket carrier bags for home deliveries. Recently, many supermarkets in the UK have banned plastic carrier bags for home deliveries. I cannot stress enough how much disabled people not only rely on home deliveries, but also how impractical these deliveries are without bags.

Wet wipes. I can only shower once a week so I rely on wet wipes for hygiene reasons, most days 

Restricted diet. And it’s not just my need for single-use plastics that has made me a target. Recently there has been a significant number of people switching to a vegan diet. This is done for many reasons, but many argue it greatly reduces the negative impact on the environment. Social media has been full of self righteous, non-disabled vegans berating all non-vegans for not doing their bit. But many of us simply couldn’t survive on a vegan diet – I would love to. My diet is already very restricted due to a number of food intolerances, and the only protein I can tolerate is chicken. I’m also intolerant to most fruit and veg, and I’m sure most of you will agree, that is a pretty big obstacle for anyone wanting to become a vegan. 

However, most people accept that there are bigger environmental problems than single use plastics. Efforts to reduce industrial emissions, like those from the fossil fuel industry, would have a much greater impact on the climate crisis. More about that later.

Researching

Having said all that, I still want to play my part in combating the ongoing climate crisis.

But is it actually possible for me to reduce my negative impact on the environment, given the many obstacles I face? Is it possible to reduce my carbon footprint, and adapt my life to be more environmentally friendly while living with a chronic illness or disability?

Time to do some research…

What I discovered is, there are steps we can all take, disabled and non-disabled people alike, to be kinder to the environment. Here are a few;

  • Reduce car use and air travel
  • Reduce food waste and food miles
  • Reduce energy and water consumption
  • Recycle and reuse where possible 
  • Change eating habits and eat less meat and dairy, where possible
  • Avoid fast fashion

There are also many companies going out of their way to produce sustainable products, and use eco-friendly packaging. By choosing these companies, and diverting our custom away from organisations that are reluctant to adapt, we can make a statement.

Steps to reduce our individual carbon footprint will have a bigger effect than banning disposable plastic straws. Although my carbon footprint is already pretty small when compared to the average consumer. I don’t travel by car accept for hospital appointments. I haven’t flown since 2010, and my last longhaul flight was was 14 years ago. I only shower once a week, so my water consumption is low. I don’t buy fast fashion – I live in PJ’s. And I don’t buy fast food or take out coffee. 

But the truth is; 46% of ocean pollution consists of discarded fishing equipment. Over 70% of carbon emissions come from fossil fuels. The richest 10% produce over 50% of global emissions,  and just 100 companies produce 71% of global carbon emissions­. So can we please agree that it isn’t disabled people that are responsible for the scale of environmental destruction we’ve seen in the last century.

Finding

So, how do we find green solutions that are suitable for everyone, and do not put disabled people’s lives in danger?

A good place to start would be to include disabled people in the conversation. What is very clear within the disabled community is; our rights and welfare are not even taken into consideration when laws are passed. This doesn’t surprise us, society is inherently ableist. But isn’t it about time disabled people were treated equally? Isn’t it time our needs were also discussed. Isn’t it about time we were included in the discussions BEFORE damaging laws are passed? Exclusion of disabled voices has done enough damage.

And what scares us is, after the straw ban, what comes next?; pre prepared foods, or maybe medical supplies?

Another simple way to help disabled people reduce their carbon footprint would be to make the world more accessible, starting with public transport.

But ultimately the responsibility needs to be placed on the large corporations that cause the most harm to the environment. Instead of asking disabled people to stop using disposable plastic products, why aren’t companies being forced to produce, and use, recyclable materials and packaging? Why aren’t they being made to reduce harmful carbon emissions? Why aren’t governments doing more to invest in renewable energy sources? 

What have we learned from all this?

Many environmental initiatives are inherently ableist. They do not take into consideration the needs of many disabled people. Forced laws like the straw ban are putting disabled people at risk of harm and abuse.

Limiting the use of plastic products to the greatest degree possible, whilst continuing to allow them to be available as a necessary tool for people with disabilities isn’t unreasonable. Sustainability campaigns need to empower people and promote good policies, not disadvantage disabled people.

Please include us in the discussion. There are 1 billion disabled people in the world – our voices matter. We are too often forgotten and excluded, but we also want to do our bit to combat climate change.

Please listen to us.

For more personal stories, reviews, news, inspirational quotes and in-depth discussion, please head over to my Facebook page.

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  3. Jo Moss
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17 Comments

  1. You have raised some excellent points, Jo. It is alarming that disabled people are completely excluded from any sort of law making and policy changing that goes on. And town planning!

    A simple poll on the government website would have helped massively in any sort of decision making process, as would a note added to any letter sent to people on disability benefits. It’s not that complicated.

    I’ll be sharing this post all over and adding it to my news round-up this week. I hope you have a good week ahead x

  2. Great points!

    I’ve also noticed that a lot of more ‘eco-friendly’ products/alternatives are very expensive and not everyone can afford them – a lot of people have to survive on a very limited income.

  3. Great post, Jo. The plastic straw debate drives me nuts. There are massive issues affecting the planet, and plastic straws are probably the least of the problem. Sure, we should all do what we can and, yes, people can use alternatives and that’s fantastic if they’re able to, but not everyone is, and they shouldn’t be guilt-tripped because of it.

    I’ve got coeliac disease and many of the paper straws contain gluten. Staff in restaurants or fast food outlets don’t know much about gluten in their food, never mind if there is gluten in their drinking straws.

  4. Great points and important post. I too rely on single use plastic to keep me alive. Much of my medical equipment is single use. I do now use metal straws at home, but they are not as easy for me to use, and I carry plastic ones in my handbag for when no other option is available or appropriate.

  5. This is such a well balanced article on this very important subject.
    As with all things, the more we choose more sustainable companies the more impact it will likely have on consumer choices. As for people who think they have any right to force their way of life on anyone else, well… I don’t eat meat and avoid dairy but I would never tell someone else that they should do the same. I choose sustainable fashion and often write about it. Educating others – yes ✅ shaming them – Oh no! Pushing things on people will always push them away. I wish more people got that as those I know that run sustainable businesses generally don’t preach but make others aware of the great solutions out there that don’t discriminate. Thanks for this.

  6. Thanks for joining us again in this month’s linkup, Jo! Such an informative and useful post, too. A topic that clearly needs more attention. Thanks for stepping up to lead the way!

  7. This is a very interesting and well-written post, Jo, thank you for sharing. I was confused when the straw ban suddenly appeared, and I realised that plastic straws were no longer readily available in shops, restaurants etc. I had previously bought metal straws for our family, but we rarely use them so it wasn’t really an issue.

    I couldn’t help but wonder about the bigger picture, like you said. Why focus on something small when there are bigger problems with items like plastic bottles and products that will never biodegrade? My husband is a chartered waste manager, so I asked him for an opinion. He said there are far more pressing concerns about waste management and the developed world. So yes, I do not understand why people can target disabled people in these discussions and be so nasty. Education on sustainable waste management is the way forward for everyone, not bullying and demeaning actions.

  8. Such a good post! I think (hope) it’s helpful for people who are against them to hear from people who rely on them – and since you include that chart, hopefully it will help keep the “but why don’t you” comments to a minimum.

  9. A very well-argued article on something that’s on my mind a lot. I’m not personally affected by the straw ban, but as a disabled person I also rely a lot on single-use plastic. I’m on a very restricted medical diet and most of the food I get on prescription comes in plastic. My food buying options are limited by what I can actually eat, and the fact that I don’t have the energy to prepare all my veggies from scratch. I’m environmentally friendly in other ways–I take reusable water bottles out with me; I buy soft drinks in glass, cartons or cans rather than plastic; I don’t wash every day; I don’t buy makeup or hair products except shampoo and conditioner; I’ve only flown five times in my entire life; my electricity and gas comes from a green supplier; I don’t routinely buy clothes; I don’t go out much and can’t drive so I use public transport when I go out alone; I try and buy organic where possible; and I keep an eye out for practical alternatives to single-use stuff at home like food wrapping etc. When I do buy clothes however I’m limited by what’s comfortable and practical for my medical needs, and what’s available somewhere I can easily get to so I can try it on, which makes making sustainable (or ethical) choices almost impossible. I also rely heavily on internet ordering, which more often than not comes in plastic. It’s easy to feel guilty for all the ways in which we can’t be eco-friendly, but much of that is in someone else’s hands, like companies who need to change their packaging. Or, if the public transport in my area was better, I wouldn’t have to ask my mum to drive me places so much. (Though she has a hybrid, so that could be worse.) It’s important to keep in mind that we’re doing what we can where we can, and no-one should expect more from us. And keep our eyes out for small ways where we CAN do better. I’ve seen some great innovative ideas on Kickstarter, like reusable cotton swabs, and environmentally superior water filter jugs (which sadly won’t fit in my fridge, or I’d have ordered one).

  10. Wow, thanks this is a great post. I had read about the woman who died from the metal straw, but had not thought further about it. Thanks for filling in all those details, and the links.

  11. I love that you’ve written about single-use plastics! I did this too cause they’re so important for many disabled and chronically ill people. And I really like how you’ve added a list of ways people can be kinder to the environment.
    Georgina 💙

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