Eco-Ableism, Zero Waste and Me

Like other forms of ableism (the overlooking and/or discrimination of people with disabilities, and the categorisation of disability as making us 'less than' a non-disabled person), eco-ableism is frustrating. The zero-waste movement is well-meaning and seeks to make the world a better place for everyone, yet often it overlooks the needs of people with disabilities. 

Photo by Meghan Rodgers on Unsplash


Take the issue of plastic straws. Nobody will deny that we were overusing straws, that they, as a single-use plastic, are a massive contributor to plastic pollution. Something had to be done. What was overlooked, however, was the fact that many people with disabilities rely on plastic straws to sufficiently hydrate themselves. Some people can't drink from a cup, others have tremors of muscle spasms that make the use of metal (or another solid material) straws risky. Paper straws collapse easily and they go soggy in liquids over time. For someone with the need to drink through a straw throughout the day, plastic is the best option. Now that plastic straws are in short supply and their use is vilified, what are these people to do?

See also: single-use plates and cutlery, prepackaged and prepared fruit and vegetables, ready meals in plastic trays or bottled water and soda. If you have mobility issues or chronic fatigue, these things can be the difference between eating a meal and not. Nobody should be shamed for doing what they need to nourish themselves.

Taking public transport and walking are luxuries, too. Consider how much harder that ten-minute walk to the shops would be with a prosthetic leg, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue, or any other of the myriad of challenges faced by someone with a disability or chronic illness. Some days, I can barely climb the stairs without becoming breathless; I'm not going to lug the groceries home from town on those days. 

I have Crohn's Disease and a resulting ileostomy. I wear a stoma bag constantly. That bag is made of layers of plastic, adhesives and a soft-touch outer layer that's definitely made of synthetic materials. When I've worn one bag for a few days, I remove it, seal it in a little plastic bag and throw it away. There are sundry single-use items, too. Dry wipes, individually packaged adhesive remover and powders and pastes in plastic containers. I generate plastic waste, and that makes me feel guilty sometimes. Then I remember that this particular waste exists to stop my actual bodily waste from escaping and causing me further harm. This is essential plastic. 

I also have Coeliac Disease. The only treatment for that is to eat a gluten free diet. After over a decade of eating this way, it's a way of life. In order to eat a gluten free diet, however, I inevitably end up buying products in plastic. One of the biggest risks to Coeliacs is cross-contamination; gluten from other sources ending up in our gluten free food. This results in our products being thoroughly sealed in (usually plastic) packaging. I can buy gluten free pasta and flour from my nearest bulk-buy store, and I can bake my own cakes and treats to cut down on waste. I can't make my own bread, however. I tried. The sheer quantity of ingredients required to produce something I only vaguely enjoyed eating wasn't sustainable. So, I buy gluten free bread, wrapped in plastic. I'm always on the look-out for gluten free products wrapped in sustainable packaging, do share in the comments if you have any favourites.

I do all I can to reduce the waste my household produces. I make conscious decisions on the products I buy based on their production and packaging, and I refuse to accept unnecessary waste; I take my conscience to the supermarket. Yet, I will never be one of those people who can show off the minuscule amount of trash they've added to landfill. I'm at peace with that.

Every person can only do their best for the planet, and that's different for each of us. We need to stop beating ourselves and each other up for the essential plastics used by people with disabilities and focus on the big issues.

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