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Being disabled: I am the single use plastics crisis – and that’s okay

I could weep when I look at the mound of plastic I create each day, or week. The toll is ridiculous. What I have to remember is that this is what single use plastics are there for. This is because, like many other ill and disabled people, I rely on them for survival.

Catheter:

  • 7 overnight bags each week (I tried using the ones that lasted a week, but they contributed to my sepsis, so I was forced to swap to ones lasting a day)
  • The individual sterile bags that each of those catheter bags came in
  • The plastic cap on the end of the tubing for each of those bags
  • The 1 leg bag each week (and that’s using them the maximum time considered safe)
  • The individual sterile bags that those catheter bags came in
  • The plastic cap that came on the end of the catheter bag tubing
  • 1 leg valve each week
  • The individual sterile bag that the valve came in
  • The individual plastic bag that the individual sterile bag containing the leg bag valve comes in (for no reason)
  • The plastic cap that came on the end of the leg valve
  • 3 bladder washouts each week (at a minimum)
  • The individual sterile bag that those came in

Feeding tube

  • Three syringes a week (washing and reusing syringes isn’t the safest option, but I do what I can to use things for longer than a single time)
  • The sterile packaging for those syringes
  • At least one syringe cap a week and often more
  • The sterile packaging for the syringe cap(s)
  • 7 litre bottles for the tube feed
  • The individual packaging that those bottles came in
  • The throwaway lid on the bottles
  • 7 giving sets (the tubing that connects the tube feed bottle to the tube)
  • The individual packaging those came in
  • The throwaway plastic caps on either end of the giving set
  • Thankfully the tube feed itself now comes in paper bottles and foil packets
  • The (up to) 5 straws I throw away each day that came attached to the paper bottles with the tube feed in

Heel wound (I have a sore on my heel which is dressed by nurses 3 times a week)

  • Six sets of disposeable gloves
  • Three disposeable aprons
  • Three sterile kits, which come in a plastic package, which contains a plastic bin bag and a plastic tray, and plastic packets of saline
  • At least three sets of the bandages they use are wrapped in plastic
  • The three dressings they use are wrapped in plastic
  • The material they put between the wound and the dressing is wrapped in plastic

Other

  • If I have a drink while out (I shouldn’t – I really shouldn’t – but I do) I don’t use a reuseable cup. I need to buy one, but I can’t keep a used reuseable cup on my lap until I next have a chance to give it to someone to wash up, and I can’t independently get it into my bag, so I haven’t figured out a solution
  • Any drinks I have need a straw – my swallow is compromised, and I have to use one to swallow safely
  • Many of the sprays and inhalers I have for my asthma etc are made of plastic
  • The gloves my carers use to do my personal care are plastic
  • Part of the equipment for my bowel program comes wrapped in plastic

There’s probably plenty more that I’ve forgotten. If it wouldn’t be horrendously unhygenic, I’d take a photo of it all in a pile.

All of this is okay. Single use plastics were part of one of the biggest medical revolutions of the 20th century. The more we discovered about how infections are caused, the more crucial single use plastics became to fighting them. Sterile catheter bags keep me out of hospital and prevent me getting urosepsis. The feeding tube and all the plastic involved in it keeps me alive. Straws mean I can swallow things with a reduced chance of choking. All of these things are crucial to me staying alive – and the same is true for many other people with long-term health conditions.

There is a lot that the NHS could do to move towards a more environmentally friendly way of managing its waste – but calls to eliminate single use plastics from society entirely, to fine people for the single use plastic waste they create, or to abolish plastic straws are all calls that will affect disabled people far more than they do anyone else.

Balloons. Let’s all focus on abolishing non-recyclable plastic balloons – they’re an unnecessary single-use plastic without (unless I’m mistaken) a clinical use in keeping people alive.

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