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

Written by Javed Iqbal

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

Prepared vegetables, ready meals and 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 cooking and preparing meals a nightmare. Until the end of last year, I simply avoided cooking myself, as the kitchen utensils I needed were not suitable.

Since then, I’ve slowly built up my confidence in the kitchen using pre-cut ingredients. But I still feel a sense of regret and guilt filling my shopping cart with prepackaged items because of the cost and amount of leftover plastic waste.

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

It’s not just prepackaged food. Disposable plastic straws are essential for people who can’t lift a glass to their mouth or have motor control, chewing or swallowing problems – and lack of availability can cause huge concern.

An uncomfortable trade-off

Craig Wallace, head of policy at Advocacy for Inclusion, says the ban on plastic straws introduces another layer of complexity into the lives of disabled people by requiring them to negotiate the accessibility of an item they need to remain hydrated or wearing that item. with them.

And while exemptions that allow plastic straws to be provided to people with medical conditions or disabilities are now in place in most states and territories, there is no requirement for plastic straws to be carried – meaning there is no guarantee they will be available. Paper straws are often not suitable as they lack the flexibility and durability of their plastic counterparts.

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

“We don’t ask people without disabilities to carry cups and saucers and eating utensils when they go out to a restaurant. We shouldn’t ask people with disabilities who need plastic straws to drink liquids, to have to provide themselves, Wallace says.

It is an uncomfortable trade-off against a small but highly affected group of people. And while the ban includes provisions for cafes and restaurants to store straws, these exemptions are meaningless as venues are not required to include them.

“We weigh the ability of disabled people to get a glass of water in a cafe without choking to death against the harm caused by plastic straws,” says Wallace.

Accessible housing

The prepackaged food debate was in the spotlight last month when a consumer created a thread on Reddit condemning “stupid” and “lazy” shoppers for buying pre-cut vegetables and contributing to plastic pollution. Included in the post was a photo of the assortment, – trays and bags of diced onions, sliced ​​spring onions, sliced ​​potatoes and diced pumpkin.

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

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

“When I’m preparing the food, I reach back up onto the bench as it’s much higher than a wheelchair,” says Berbury. “With any reach [I’m] stressing my back injury … Before I’ve eaten, the pain level really kicks in … This would be my life every night if I didn’t have prepackaged meals.”

Knowing that her weekly meals have been prepared, prepared and delivered helps Berbury relax without triggering unnecessary waves of pain.

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

“People may assume that because I sit down in my wheelchair, I’m completely comfortable, and it may even look easier,” says Berbury.

“But when you break down what’s actually involved and how limited your movements are while steering your chair, combined with every movement triggering pain, it’s something a lot of people aren’t able to relate to.”

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

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

Gunnis says that one simply needs to feel the use of ready-made foods as lazy misses the point.

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

a man in an orange-striped shirt and beret stands in front of a valley filled with clouds and a sandstone cliff behind.
Korey Gunnis, who lives with cerebral palsy and an autoimmune condition, has relied on frozen and ready meals through the NDIS to make life a little easier as he juggles fatigue and pain.(Delivered)

The costs of living independently

Aside from the plastic waste, the cost of ready-made items can be double or even triple the amount of buying ingredients individually.

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

Disability advocate and appearance activist Carly Findlay believes the price of essential, ready-to-eat foods needs to change to make them more accessible to people with special needs.

“The costs must [be taken on] of the large organisations, which 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 woman with curly hair, wearing a light dress and studded leather jacket stands smiling in front of a blue velvet curtain.
Carly Findlay believes the price of prepackaged food, which can be life-changing for people with disabilities, is too high.(Provided by: Sam Biddle)

In 2018, it was 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 household income compared to people without disabilities. Among those whose household income was known, half lived in a household in the two lowest quintiles, more than twice as often as people without disabilities.

“Prepared vegetables and convenience foods 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 coherent view

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 utensil products 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 for that in our society, so we create a more level playing field for everyone.” says Bremer.

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

Chopped food and vegetables, or processed meals, can be important to many different kinds of people.

Chopped vegetables and salad leaves in a prepackaged plastic bag sold in a supermarket
Chopped food and vegetables can be useful for many kinds of people. (www.woolworths.com.au)

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

Teresa Berbury agrees and points out 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, but where people are suffering, any product or packaging that can make our lives healthier and significantly less painful should be protected from environmental bans,” she says. “With what I live with every day, I absolutely deserve this help.”

Craig Wallace says the issue is not just one of prioritizing climate change. It is about not prioritizing justice for people who are affected.

“It is really appropriate to take into account the needs and demands of disabled people 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 their products so that they are safe and cost-effective for everyone. “It can be done,” she says. “We just need the political and corporate motivation to make it 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 food services. Even cardboard would minimize a lot of the plastic component of food packaging,” says Berbury.

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

Some large supermarket chains have already introduced reusable packaging in their range.

In 2018, We Bar None became the first Victorian company to use 100 per cent home compostable packaging for its energy bars, and in 2020 Vegan Dairy began using 100 per cent home compostable vacuum seal bags and labels for their entire range of plant-based cheeses.

And Arnott’s has committed to switching the soft plastic used in all biscuit packaging from multi- to mono-material so that it is fully recyclable by the end of 2023.

“If ready-to-eat vegetables and meals make other people’s lives easier and don’t hurt you, don’t hate them,” says Carly Findlay. “Availability comes in many forms – and food availability is a human right.”

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Javed Iqbal

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