From clothes to toys to shampoos, plastic is in so much. It’s cheap to produce, durable, and has a million uses, so it’s easy to see why manufacturers have latched on to plastic as being essential to their products in the last few decades. As a keen environmentalist, it is tragic to see how much of an effect worldwide plastic use is already having, particularly on our marine life. Following the success of David Attenboroughs show Blue Planet 2, we are becoming more aware of how using plastic effects the environment, and people are taking steps to reduce their plastic use, myself included. The title of this post may now be sounding quite confusing. Let me explain.
The (in my opinion, badly named) ‘zero-waste’ movement is gaining momentum by the day. People are becoming more informed about environmental issues, and learning ways they can make a difference in their own lives, and by carrying the message forward. This is commendable. If we all do what we can to reduce plastic waste and try and educate where we can, we’re working with a very effective model to advocate for change. The problems begin to arise when people switch from educating to judging others for the choices they make, and this is something that has hit the disability community hard.
The most prominent example of this is the ‘plastic straw debate’, the crux of this being that there is no need for anyone to use plastic straws, end of story. On the face of it, and one reason this has become such a contentious issue, is that on the face of it this seems reasonable. Why not make a small change for the better, and use one of the many alternatives available? The infographic below is a very quick and easy snapshot of why.
This infographic, and many like it, were made because so many disabled people on social media were getting sick of having to justify again and again their right to use a product which enables them to do something really fundamental, to drink liquids. Many disabled people cannot drink at all without plastic straws, but for many of those who are privileged not to have that need, no reason is good enough. Straws specifically have been honed in on so much that the majority of bars and cafes have stopped stocking them, often replacing with an inferior replacement (for the purposes of those who need them) or in the case of places like Starbucks, convoluted solutions to eliminating straws that actually use more plastic than the original cups plus straw.
One solution to the straw dilemma in particular is to have people ask for them if they need them, instead of them coming as standard with a drink. This too has been problematic, with staff in the service industry using their own judgement to decide whether the person making the request ‘requires’ a straw. This is something I have sadly seen many people boast about in zero waste groups on facebook. In other establishments, a drink will come in single use plastic, or with a plastic swizzle stick, but a straw is not available to those who need it. This, to me seems convoluted and smacks of virtue signalling.
As a disabled person, who cannot cut up and prepare a lot of my own food, single use plastic is also essential if I want to eat a balanced died. I buy the pre-prepared chopped up fruit and salad, because I cannot eat whole fruit, and I do not have someone available to me 24/7 to prepare these things for me. Having something in the fridge that I can grab is literally the difference between me eating something less healthy, or worse still, nothing at all.
This sort of pre-prepared food comes under huge scrutiny from zero-wasters “because it comes in its own packaging. Why would you take off the packaging (peel or shell for example) and then wrap in in plastic”. Well, disabled people are telling you why, and we have been for some time. Nevertheless, we end up having these conversations again and again.
The solution is with the manufacturers. Of course there is the option to vote with your wallet and not buy things heavily packaged, and it’s wonderful if you’re in a position to be able to do that. We’re already seeing changes in what stores are offering. The worry for someone like me is that such products will be withdrawn altogether, and with it a big part of my ability to live as normal a life as possible. It is very possible for manufacturers to make biodegradable or more easily recyclable packaging that serves the same function, but because this will cost significantly more to produce, it will never be anywhere near the first option taken by businesses, whose main goal is to optimise profit.
I believe that for the most part, everyone is doing the best they can. Not everyone can be idealistic all the time, because the reality is that there are many reasons to make decisions that done line up perfectly with your beliefs. I don’t think we should give ourselves a hard time for that and I don’t think that others have the right to do that either. Your best is always good enough.