Plastic can be an essential accessibility tool for people with disabilities. What happens when we ban it?

As a person living with a physical disability, there are a few things I need to help me live an independent life.

Prepared vegetables, prepared meals, and drinking straws, some of which are made of plastic, are absolutely essential for people like me.

I have limited use of my hands and this has made prepping and cooking a nightmare. Until the end of last year I simply avoided cooking myself because the kitchen utensils I needed were not the right ones.

Since then, I have gradually gained confidence in cooking with the help of pre-cut ingredients. But I still feel remorse and guilt for loading my shopping basket with prepackaged items because of the cost and amount of leftover plastic waste.

The reality is that plastic can be an essential accessibility tool.

It’s not just about pre-packaged food. Single-use plastic straws are vital for people who cannot bring a cup to their mouth or have problems with motor control, chewing or swallowing, and their unavailability can cause great concern.

an awkward exchange

Craig Wallace, policy director at the Advocacy for Inclusion, says the plastic straw ban introduces another layer of complexity into the lives of people with disabilities by requiring them to negotiate the availability of an item they need to stay hydrated or to carry. that item. with them.

And while there are now exemptions that allow plastic straws to be supplied to people with medical conditions or disabilities in most states and territories, there is no requirement to carry plastic straws, which means there is no guarantee that they will be available. . Paper straws are often not suitable because they lack the flexibility and durability of their plastic counterparts.

A bald man in a maroon tie and a black suit with a white shirt.
Craig Wallace says that the ban on plastic straws adds a layer of complexity to the lives of people with disabilities.(Supplied)

“We’re not asking people without disabilities to carry cups and saucers and eating implements when they go out to a restaurant. We shouldn’t be asking people with disabilities who need plastic straws to supply themselves,” Wallace. He says.

It’s an awkward trade-off against a small but highly affected group of people. And while the ban includes provisions for cafes and restaurants to stock straws, these exemptions are meaningless since places are not legally required to include them.

“We’re weighing the ability of disabled people to get a glass of water in a cafe without suffocating against the harm caused by plastic straws,” says Wallace.

affordable housing

The debate over pre-packaged foods came into the spotlight last month when a consumer created a thread on Reddit condemning “dumb” and “lazy” shoppers for buying cut-up vegetables and contributing to plastic pollution. Included in the post was a photo of the variety: trays and bags of minced onions, sliced ​​spring onions, sliced ​​potatoes, and cubes of squash.

Teresa Berbury has suffered from severe chronic pain for the past seven years and recently developed monoplegia with paralysis in one leg due to failed back surgery. Since she lives on her own, maintaining an independent lifestyle can be both challenging and rewarding.

A woman in a pink hoodie looks through the fridge while sitting in a wheelchair.
For Teresa Burbery, maintaining an independent lifestyle is challenging but also rewarding.(Supplied)

“When I’m making food, I stretch over the bench again, as it’s so much higher than a wheelchair,” says Berbury. “With every reach [I’m] putting pressure on my back injury…By the time I’ve eaten, the pain levels have really kicked in…This would be my life every night if I didn’t have pre-packaged meals.”

Knowing that his weekly meal has been prepared, cooked, and delivered helps Berbury relax without triggering unnecessary waves of pain.

But she says there are times when she feels the items she needs to use to live independently are something many don’t understand.

“People may assume that because I’m sitting in my wheelchair I’m perfectly comfortable and it might even seem easier,” says Berbury.

“But when you look at what’s really involved and how limited your movements are while steering your chair, combined with every movement causing pain, it’s something a lot of people can’t relate to.”

Korey Gunnis has also relied on frozen and prepared meals through the NDIS in the past, but says they have been more difficult to obtain in recent times.

“As someone with cerebral palsy and an autoimmune condition, it made my life a little easier at the end of the day, when I have more fatigue and pain.”

Gunnis says that simply labeling the use of convenience foods as lazy misses the point.

“[It] It comes from a place of ignorance, and whoever made that statement doesn’t understand what it’s like to live with chronic illness and disability.”

a man in an orange striped shirt and beret stands in front of a cloud-filled valley and a sandstone escarpment behind.
Korey Gunnis, who lives with cerebral palsy and an autoimmune condition, has relied on frozen and prepared meals through the NDIS to make life a little easier when juggling fatigue and pain.(Supplied)

The cost of living independently

In addition to plastic waste, the costs of prepared items can be double or even triple the amount of buying ingredients individually.

And with the current cost of living crisis, prices are on the rise.

Carly Findlay, an advocate for people with disabilities and an activist for appearance, believes the cost of essential pre-prepared foods needs to change to make them more accessible to people with special needs.

“The cost must [be taken on] by large organizations that use more plastic and create more waste and fossil fuels than individual disabled people,” says Findlay. “Many disabled people live at or below the poverty line and are significantly unemployed or underemployed compared to the rest of the population. “

A curly-haired woman in a sparkly dress and polka-dotted leather jacket smiles in front of a blue velvet curtain.
Carly Findlay believes that the cost of pre-packaged foods, which can change the lives of people with disabilities, is too high.(Supplied: Sam Biddle)

In 2018, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that the personal income of people with disabilities was $505 per week, less than half that of people without disabilities. People with disabilities were also more likely to live in households with a lower gross family income compared to people without disabilities. Among those whose family income was known, half lived in a household in the bottom two quintiles, more than twice as often as people without disabilities.

“Precooked vegetables and prepared meals can be unaffordable for many disabled people. The disability tax, the cost disabled people pay for accessibility, is real, and this [prepackaged food] proves it,” says Findlay.

A cohesive perspective

Jane Bremmer is the campaign coordinator for Zero Waste Australia. Having a son with cerebral palsy, she understands how necessary some of the plastic-wrapped food and utensils are for people with disabilities.

“There will always be a need for semi-processed foods for people with disabilities who need that support. And we have a duty of care to provide that in our society, so that we can create a more level playing field for all.” Bremmer says.

“I don’t think it necessarily has to be plastic, but there can be a lot of uses that are essential for people with all sorts of different abilities who need easy, lightweight packaging.”

Chopped foods and vegetables, or processed foods, can be important to many different types of people.

Chopped vegetables and salad leaves in a pre-packaged plastic bag for sale in a supermarket
Chopped foods and vegetables can be helpful for many types of people. (www.woolworths.com.au)

“So we have to find safe packaging alternatives for that, or keep them as essential uses for people who really need them,” he says.

Teresa Berbury agrees, noting that she is always thinking about what can make life easier for her and the planet.

“I do everything I can to minimize my impact, however, where humans are suffering, any product or packaging that could make our lives healthier and significantly less painful should be protected from environmental bans,” he says. “With what I live with every day, I absolutely deserve this help.”

Craig Wallace says the problem is not simply prioritizing climate change. It is a matter of not prioritizing justice for the people affected.

“It is really appropriate to take into account the needs and requirements of people with disabilities when we implement pollution control measures,” he says.

The future is recyclable

For Jane Bremmer, the best outcome would be for the packaging industry to redesign its products to be safe and profitable for everyone. “It’s completely doable,” she says. “We just need the political and corporate motivation to make this happen.”

Australian companies such as Arnott’s, We Bar None and Vegan Dairy have all initiated changes to their packaging.

“I would love to see biodegradable packaging integrated into these foodservices. Even cardboard would minimize much of the plastic component in food packaging,” says Berbury.

woman holding six energy bars
The Victorian company We Bar None uses home compostable packaging.(ABC Ballarat: Dominic Cansdale)

Some large supermarket chains have already introduced recyclable packaging in their ranges.

In 2018, We Bar None became the first Victorian company to use 100% home compostable wrappers for their energy bars, and Vegan Dairy in 2020 began using 100% home compostable vacuum-sealed bags and labels for all their energy bars. range of plant-based cheeses. .

And Arnott’s has committed to transitioning the soft plastic used in all multi-material cookie packaging to a single material, so that it is fully recyclable, by the end of 2023.

“If prepared vegetables and prepared meals make other people’s lives easier and don’t hurt you, don’t hate them,” says Carly Findlay. “Accessibility comes in many forms, and accessibility to food is a human right.”

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