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 items I require to help me live an independent life.

Pre-prepared vegetables, ready 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 preparing and cooking meals a nightmare. Up until the end of last year I simply avoided cooking meals myself as the kitchen tools I needed weren’t suitable.

Since then I have slowly been building my confidence in the kitchen with the help of pre-cut ingredients. But I still feel a sense of regret and guilt loading my shopping basket up with pre-packaged items due to the cost and the amount of leftover plastic waste.

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

It’s not just pre-packaged food. Plastic single-use plastic straws are vital for people who cannot lift a glass to their mouth or have motor control, chewing or swallowing issues — and a lack of availability can cause enormous worry.

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 people with disabilities by requiring them to negotiate the availability of an item that they need to remain hydrated or to carry that item with them.

And while exemptions allowing plastic straws to be supplied 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 no guarantee they will be available. Paper straws are often not suitable as they lack the flexibility and durability of their plastic counterparts.

Craig Wallace says a ban on plastic straws adds a layer of complexity to the lives of people with disabilities.(Supplied)

“We don’t ask 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 consume liquids to have to supply them themselves,” Wallace says.

It’s an uncomfortable trade-off against a small but highly affected group of people. And while the ban does include provisions for cafes and restaurants to stock straws, these exemptions are meaningless as venues are under no legal obligation to include them.

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

Accessible living

The pre-packaged food debate was in the spotlight last month when a consumer created a thread on Reddit condemning “dumb” and “lazy” shoppers for purchasing re-cut vegetables and contributing to plastic pollution. Included in the post was a photo of the range, — trays and bags of diced onion, sliced ​​spring onion, sliced ​​potato and pumpkin cubes.

Teresa Berbury has suffered from severe chronic pain for the past seven years and recently developed monoplegia with paralysis in one leg from a failed back surgery. As 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 preparing the food I’m again reaching above onto the bench as it is much higher than a wheelchair,” Berbury says. “With every reach [I’m] putting strain 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 her weekly food has been prepared, cooked and delivered helps Berbury to relax without triggering unnecessary waves of pain.

But she says there are times she feels that the items she needs to use in order to live independently is something many fail to understand.

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

“But when you break down what is actually involved and how limited your movements are while steering your chair, combined with each movement triggering pain, it’s something many people are unable to relate to.”

Korey Gunnis has also relied on frozen and ready 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 life a bit easier for me at the end of the day, when I have more fatigue and pain.”

Gunnis says to simply label the use of pre-prepared foods as lazy misses the point.

“[It] comes from a place of ignorance, and whoever made that statement does not understand what it is 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 escarpment behind it.
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 bit easier when he is juggling fatigue and pain.(Supplied)

The cost of living independently

Aside from the plastic waste, the costs of pre-prepared items can be twice or even three times the amount of buying ingredients individually.

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

Disability advocate and appearance activist Carly Findlay believes the cost of essential, pre-prepared food items must change to be more accessible for people with special needs.

“The cost must [be taken on] by the big organizations which are using more plastic and creating more waste and fossil fuels than individual disabled people,” Findlay says. “Many disabled people live on 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 bright dress and polka-dot leather jacket stands smiling in front of a blue velvet curtain.
Carly Findlay believes the cost of pre-packaged food, that can be life-changing for 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 household income compared to people without disabilities. Among those whose household income was known, half lived in a household in the lowest two quintiles, more than twice the frequency of people without disability.

“Pre-prepared veggies and ready meals may be unaffordable for many disabled people. The disability tax — the cost disabled people pay for accessibility — is real, and this [prepackaged food] proves it,” Findlay says.

A cohesive outlook

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 is always going to be a need for semi-processed food for people with disabilities that need that support. And we have a duty of care to provide that in our society, so that we create a more level playing field for everybody,” Bremmer says.

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

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

Chopped up vegetables and salad leaves in a pre-packaged plastic bag sold in a supermarket
Chopped food and vegetables can be useful for many kinds 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,” she says.

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

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

Craig Wallace says the issue isn’t a matter of just prioritizing climate change. It’s a matter of not prioritizing justice for people who are affected.

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

The future is recyclable

For Jane Bremmer, the best outcome would be that the packaging industry redesigns their products so that they’re safe and cost effective for all. “It’s completely doable,” 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 begun 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 to food packaging,” Berbury says.

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

Some major supermarket chains have already introduced recyclable packaging into their ranges.

In 2018, We Bar None became the first Victorian business to use 100 per cent home compostable wrappers for its energy bars, and Vegan Dairy in 2020 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 transition the soft plastic used in all biscuit packaging from multi to mono-material, so it is fully recyclable, by the end of 2023.

“If pre-prepared veggies and ready meals are making life easier for other people, and not harming you, don’t hate on them,” says Carly Findlay. “Accessibility comes in many forms – and food accessibility is a human right.”

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