So, this week I got into an argument with some people I don’t know on Facebook (I know, I know, I should know better). The argument was about this picture, originally seen in a viral tweet:
A friend shared the photo with the single strapline ‘wtf’ and there followed several comments along the lines of ‘carry a pocket knife … no excuse for this.’
So I made the mistake of pointing out that some people, actually, do have an excuse, nay, a reason, to need such items, for instance poor coordination or muscular weakness, and that perhaps we could be open-minded enough to consider the difference such pre-prepared foods make to the potential for living an independent life as a person with a disability (as had already been adeptly pointed out on several news outlets such as The Metro). Sadly, few other commenters were interested in being open-minded, they only wanted to show off their green credentials by ramming the point about plastics home.
Similar arguments have been raging recently over the phasing out of disposable plastic straws, for which neither paper, stainless steel, or reusable plastic as yet provide a perfect alternative for those who cannot easily drink from a cup, can, or bottle. Now I do agree – who couldn’t, having seen the evidence on Blue Planet 2? – that, for reasons ranging from climate change to marine conservation to the depletion of resources, we need to reduce massively our reliance on plastic. In fact, living less than a mile from one of Scotland’s most beautiful (albeit inaccessible to wheelchairs) beaches, I am acutely aware of the despoiling nature of drinking straws, cotton buds, discarded flip-flops, etc., etc.
But. For some members of society there’s not ‘no excuse’ for using plastic drinking straws. They can’t just ‘carry a pocket knife’ and peel their own oranges. And vilifying these people doesn’t help build a compassionate society that shows concern both for our neighbours and for the environment we all share.
I try to be green. I walk or cycle where possible. I compost waste and use cloth nappies. We have insulated our house and don’t heat the rooms we don’t use. It’s in our own best interests: I know that working towards a more sustainable way of life is of most benefit to the most vulnerable, with eco-catastrophes such as more frequent and severe winter storms, rising fuel and food prices, and the loss of cultivable and habitable land, impacting hardest on disadvantaged groups including those with disabilities.
But, I also know that, because of Benjamin, our life is less sustainable than I would like. We have the (gas-fired) central heating on at night to keep him warm. We use – and discard – plastic containers, tubes, and packages every day as part of the process of feeding him safely. We have to drive places because public transport is not always feasible. Should we be mocked on social media for this? Should we be criticised for consuming materials that, literally, keep our son alive? Should being green trump caring for our most vulnerable?
Perhaps what is needed is legislation, not to outlaw single-use plastics entirely, but to limit them to those that cannot do without them. Of course, this will eventually make them effectively unavailable even to those that do need them, because a specialist label almost always means a specialist price-tag: the more ‘niche’ a product becomes, the more prohibitive its cost. Perhaps instead plastic goods should be available only on prescription, like antibiotics, to prevent irresponsible users putting everyone at risk. But with some clinical commissioning groups already considering cutting funding for non-pharmaceutical items such as prescription formula, I’m not sure this would be popular either.
There’s no easy answer. Clearly we should seek to develop safe, effective, reasonably-priced, sustainable alternatives to single-use plastics. But we aren’t there yet, and in the meantime I’m not sure banning them and stigmatising their users is the way forward. People with disabilities are discriminated against and misunderstood already; this will just provide the bullies and perpetrators of hate-crime with another weapon in their armoury.
So how can we reduce our plastic use without an outright ban that negatively impacts upon the small sector of society that truly can’t live without them? The first step has to be education: let’s keep up the impetus that Blue Planet 2 has started. At the same time, we need to support the development of safe, effective, affordable, desirable, and sustainable alternatives. In the meantime, it’s up to us all to be responsible: if you don’t depend upon plastics, don’t use them: leave them for those that do (I only hope people’s attitude to plastics differs from their attitude to disabled parking bays…!). With tolerance, thoughtfulness, and responsibility we could build a society that values its environment and its most vulnerable members. Is that too much to ask?