Plastic Pollution is a Problem, But We Need to Stop Blaming Disabled People

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a core part of the United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development. There are 17 in total, including responsible consumption and production, climate action, life below water, and life on land. These four SDGs are all directly impacted by plastic pollution.


Fish swim among various plastic items which have been dumped in the sea

The problem


Many of us know by now that plastic pollution is a problem. Plastic pollution is the excess of discarded plastic and is caused by the absence of safe ways to eliminate used plastic. This is particularly damaging when plastic is not properly collected and stored away from natural environments where it can cause harm. This is more apparent in developing nations where waste collection systems may not exist or be less advanced. When plastic waste is disposed of properly it still takes hundreds of years for it to break down in landfill.


In an attempt to tackle this, recycling has been encouraged and in the UK it has become a part of daily life. Recycling offers an optimistic solution for consumers, but many won’t realise the harsh reality of what happens once they say goodbye to their recycling. Local authorities give strict rules on how to sort recycling for kerbside collection due to contracts they hold with companies who process the recycling. If the number of incorrect items in a batch goes over a predetermined threshold the whole batch goes to landfill and the local authority may lose its contract if this happens repeatedly.


On the surface it seems simple to abide by some rules, but householders aren’t given enough detailed information. Materials not recycled at kerbside must be recycled at a recycling centre, which may be inaccessible or too much effort for some people. Even when successfully recycled most plastics can only be recycled once. By comparison aluminium cans can be recycled endlessly.


Sadly, a lot of plastic has made its way into our oceans where it endangers wildlife; we’ve all seen this viral video of a turtle getting a plastic straw removed from its nasal passage (this may be upsetting). As well as blocking airways and ensnaring sea life, plastic poses a threat when it breaks down into microplastics causing oceans to become more acidic. You can read more about the harm caused by microplastics in the ocean here.


Half of all plastics ever manufactured have been made in the last 15 years. - National Geographic

For some, plastic is a lifeline


You might have noticed the move to ban plastic straws in recent years - cafes and bars frequently offer paper alternatives and people have personal collections at home. What has not been considered is that some disabled people NEED regular, plastic, single use straws. You may be sceptical, but there are good reasons for this. Some people count on the flexibility, sturdiness, and neutral temperature offered by disposable plastic straws. In some cases, this is because of a biting issue and/or substitutes pose a choking hazard. If disabled people had been heard in the debate around plastic straws, potentially a new product could have been developed to fill their need without the use of plastic. In the meantime the ability to drink is rather necessary.


It’s not just straws, there are many plastic products which disabled people rely on. Baby wipes are another common product needed by disabled people to maintain hygiene if they are unable to shower or have problems with incontinence. Most baby wipes are made of plastic with alternatives being more expensive and not widely stocked. Disabled people also need quick and/or easy access to food and drink which can involve a lot of plastic, for example bottles, plastic tubs, film and take away containers.


There are also a lot of plastics in medical care: lancets for checking blood sugar, plastic vials for blood collection, IV tubing, casts, dressings and incontinence pads etc. Beyond that a lot of supplements and medicines use plastics in pill bottles, inhalers, and blister packs. A lot of disabled people need ongoing medical care which includes medical single use plastics. Instead of vilifying disabled people we need to drive systemic change so that there are eco-friendly options for everyone.


Where do we go from here?


We need change that comes from the very top. The simplest way to cut down on plastic products is to replace them with materials we already utilise. A great example of this is how some water is packaged in an aluminium can instead of a plastic bottle. It may be that paper, biodegradable cloth and metal can step in to provide the same products previously made from plastic. These options may not be 100% climate friendly as production and waste will have an impact, but they would at least be biodegradable or recyclable long term. Disabled people won’t always be able to use these options which is why it’s important to listen to the needs of the community.


Another avenue is innovation; new materials and solutions to the plastic already discarded. There are already some options for materials which behave like plastic but aren’t made from fossil fuels. Co-Op’s compostable carrier bags are made from vegetable matter made by Novamont. The patented product is called Mater-Bi Bioplastic and Novamont is understandably secretive about how the product is made beyond the fact that it’s made from starches and vegetable oils. Other such organic plastic products already exist, and many others are in the making. Products made from milk protein or fungi could replace polystyrene in the future.


To dispose of plastics already produced, scientists are looking into plastic eating animals such as waxworms and mealworms. They have even found a species of coral that cleans microplastics from the ocean. Many intelligent people are working on solving this problem, so perhaps we can hope for the future.


If you’re looking for a way to contribute, write to your local politician to express your concern about plastics and the the lack of responsibility shown. Do what you can to be heard. We need to drive political change to hold corporations accountable. You can also help by reducing your plastic use, here are steps you can take to avoid plastic fashion, and here are 100 steps you can take to a plastic free life.


Remember: be kind, not everyone has the option of a plastic free life.