When Plastic Is Unavoidable

I just read this article in the Guardian by writer and disability rights activist Penny Pepper. In it, she explains that she relies on both plastic straws and disposable wipes on a daily basis and cannot use any other alternatives despite many attempts. This is a topic that is often broached by people in similar situations in the zero waste Facebook groups I’m a member of too. There are often group members who feel guilty about their unavoidable plastic use due to medical conditions or disabilities.

Our son has a medical condition requiring twice-weekly injections. These come in sterile packaging and need to be disposed of carefully, of course. His condition also requires regular hospital visits, where blood tests are carried out, staff wear disposable gloves and the bed in the doctor’s clinic room is covered with disposable tissue on a roll. On occasion, he has spent time on the children’s day ward, where he was allowed to help himself to food in the kitchen: individually packaged servings of cereal, cheese, biscuits, sandwiches and crisps. I often took a packed lunch with us, but wasn’t going to deny my poorly, fed-up son (with a ravenous appetite from the steroids on a drip he was having!) a packet of crisps and a few biscuits!

I did what I could. I took my reusable cup for the endless cups of tea and a cup for my son for his drinks. I took our water bottles. I was pleased to see lots of staff carrying their drinks in a reusable cup and there was a water fountain for refilling bottles. For a lot of members of the public visiting a hospital, I’m guessing the health of themselves or their loved ones is a bit higher up their list of priorities than remembering to bring a reusable cup to the hospital.

I do what I can. We recycle the boxes and leaflets from the medication. My husband uses up the surplus, individually-wrapped, alcohol wipes that come with the injections when he needs to fix his phone screen for the umpteenth time.

Medical uses are a good use of plastic. Plastic can be cleaned easily, it’s light to transport and cheap to manufacture. The problem with the manufacture of plastic came when we got plastic-happy, when we decided to use it to make everything under the sun. If plastic is going to be used for something, let it be medical stuff; the stuff that keeps us safe, makes us better and allows people to be independent.

People with disabilities and illnesses shouldn’t feel guilty for their plastic use. They are the last people who should feel guilty for their plastic use. The people who should feel guilty for their plastic use are the people who’ve just bought yet another bottle of water if they live in a country with safe tap water, when they could have refilled the one they bought yesterday. Or the people who just had a plastic straw in their drink when they didn’t need one. Or the people in the food industry who decided that a banana’s skin wasn’t protection enough and that a thin film of non-recyclable plastic would help it get to the customer in one piece. Or the people in the hospitality industry who decided it would be a good idea to fill hotel rooms with teeny tiny plastic bottles and disposable self-care kits. Or the fat cats with influence in the US who made it illegal to impose a plastic bag ban (wonder where their money comes from?). They are the people who should feel guilty about their plastic use. Not a person who needs to use a plastic straw to drink and has tried other alternatives.

From reading Penny’s article, she has done more in her lifetime so far to raise awareness of environmental issues to more than offset her use of plastic straws and disposable wipes. I don’t get the impression that Penny feels guilty about her use of straws and wipes (why should she?), however I know this is an issue for many people out there who want to do their bit to reduce their impact on the environment but feel hampered by circumstances beyond their control. I would say to them:

Do what you can and then help the environment in other ways, raising awareness, for example, signing petitions and sharing them, emailing companies and MPs.

I refuse to feel guilty for the medication that makes our son better. We’re doing what we can.



  1. This is a lovely article Helen and I agree that people shouldn’t feel guilty where they can’t control plastic uses. I am struggling with my plastic use and do what I can but the transition is taking time for me. Companies go completely overboard and it frustrates me. Especially when they wrap organic vegetables!! But in these cases of medical supplies, there is no getting around it so I don’t feel so bad.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Jessica. It’s close to my heart as you know. There are so many decisions to make that it can be overwhelming at times: organic in plastic, non-organic loose, vegan, vegetarian, fairtrade, rainforest alliance, sustainable palm oil, no palm oil at all, etc. I’ll um and ah about all those options, but when it comes to the health of my children, I do what’s best. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.