‘Plastic Free’ campaigns are failing disabled people, and it’s scary!

Plastic free post header

Featured image: A banner with packaged cauliflower, multicoloured plastic straws and peeled oranges in plastic containers.

There has been a lot of buzz recently about the need to eliminate plastic waste, including passionate pleas from David Attenborough and a commitment from Theresa May that all ‘non essential’ plastic will be eradicated within 25 years. Campaigns to reduce plastic use are all over the place right now, from coffee chains offering discounts if you bring your own cup, to pledges by cities to become plastic free. I don’t think anyone can argue that we don’t need to cut down our plastic production as a society, but there is a dark and often unheard side to these campaigns: they are forgetting about disabled people.

There have been a number of instances of outrage in recent years about the use of plastic around food and drink. Remember the story about pre-peeled oranges in plastic boxes? Campaigners are currently calling for a ban on plastic straws, and in the past few days Marks and Spencer have come under fire for selling prepackaged cauliflower. The outcry has caused the cauliflower steak to be removed from sale.

The use of plastic in straws and fruit and veg packaging among others has been labelled wasteful, lazy and unnecessary. ‘If only nature had a way of protecting the fruit without the need for extra packaging!’ come the sarcastic cries. These claims completely sideline the fact that some disabled people are unable to peel and chop their own fruit and veg, so they need it to be prepackaged to have access to healthy food, or that some disabled people need a plastic (bendy) straw in order to be able to drink with minimal assistance. Calling plastic accessibility devices ‘unnecessary’ and the people who use them ‘lazy’ is completely ignorant and feeds in to the rhetoric that disabled people are just layabouts, not trying hard enough to participate in society. This, as I hope I don’t have to tell you, is ableist nonsense. Of course we need to take drastic action to look after the environment, but an inclusive society is just as important as a sustainable one, and I refuse to sacrifice my right to equal treatment and access if it only means that non-disabled people will get to enjoy their privileged life on the planet for a little longer.

So, we all agree that plastic use needs to be reduced, and hopefully we all agree that calls to immediately ban plastic which increases accessibility are frankly terrifying and not the way to go, so how do we solve the problem? I imagine the natural response will be:

‘Oh well of course you can continue to use plastic products, you’re disabled so you need to use them and that’s fiiinnne. All of the disabled people who need to use them can use them and us non-disabled people who don’t need to use them will just stop using them completely, and as you’re only 20% of the population that will reduce waste loads!

But that’s not good enough. And neither is this:

‘OK, so you’re disabled and you can’t use all of the normal reusable stuff like the metal straws or the paper ones, so what we’re going to do is build you a special high-tech accessible one, which won’t be available on the high street, but which you and all of your other disabled friends with special needs can use.

Let me tell you why neither of these solutions are acceptable. Because as soon as you label a product ‘only to be used by those who really need it’ or ‘especially for disabled people’ it becomes specialised, and then these things happen:

1. It puts the onus on disabled people to prove they are ‘disabled enough’ to use the product
2. The product becomes much more expensive
3. The product becomes much more difficult to get- you might have to go to a specific website to get it, or order it from abroad, rather than just popping into town to get one
4. The product becomes ‘special,’ ‘different’ and ‘not normal’ which attaches a stigma to it, reinforcing the stigma around disabled people and suggesting they need ‘special’ things in order to fit in with society

See the problem? So what should we do instead? The answer is that any new sustainable or reusable products need to be designed and produced using the principles of universal design. This means that the products need to be:

1. Accessible to everyone, including all disabled people, and inclusive of their needs
2. Affordable
3. Widely available to the general public
4. One that is expected to be used/ normal to be used by everyone, both disabled and non-disabled people

Makes sense right? If you’re panicking, thinking ‘how on Earth are we going to make all products like that?! That’s far too difficult!’ then you’re not alone. We’re so used to viewing disabled people as needing specialist products that it can be difficult to imagine how universal design can be widely implemented. But the good news is, it’s really not that hard! We already have numerous examples of accessible products which aren’t exclusively used by disabled people, like lifts and e-readers, we just don’t see them as ‘accessible’ because they are normal!

In terms of how we can move forward with ensuring environmental campaigns consider the needs of disabled people, there is a very easy solution: Include disabled people in environmental campaigns! Ask us to be involved! If you want to develop a sustainable product using universal design then ask disabled people to be involved in design, production and testing! We are experts! Trust our expertise and listen to what we need! And definitely don’t lobby to get a product banned without consulting disabled people first! It’s as simple as that!

If you want to read more on this, I would highly recommend heading over to Twitter and following @shonalouiseblog who is doing an excellent job of highlighting the discussion on the issue. Thanks for inspiring me to write this post!

Now, let’s go forth as inclusive eco-warriors and an build an accessible, sustainable society that can be enjoyed by everyone for generations to come.


BBC News Scotland (2018) Marine Conservation Society backs plastic straw ban. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-42607662

Centre for Excellence in Universal Design (2014) Definitions and overview. http://universaldesign.ie/What-is-Universal-Design/Definition-and-Overview/

Luxmoore, S. (2018) Pret a Manger doubles discount for bringing reusable coffee cups. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jan/02/pret-a-manger-doubles-discount-for-bringing-reusable-coffee-cups

Moss, R. (2018) M&S pulls ‘cauliflower steak’: other supermarkets also sell over-packaged vegetables. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/ms-pulls-cauliflower-steak-other-supermarkets-over-packaged-vegetables_uk_5a574bb6e4b08a1f624bb898

Ruddick, G. (2017) David Attenborough urges action on plastics after filming Blue Planet II. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/15/david-attenborough-urges-immediate-action-on-plastics-blue-planet

Staufenberg, J. (2016) Whole Foods pre-peeled oranges in plastic pulled after social media ridicule. http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/news/peeled-oranges-in-plastic-pulled-by-whole-foods-after-social-media-outrage-a6911611.html

Wadsworth, J. (2017) Drive to make Brighton the UK’s first plastic-free city. http://www.brightonandhovenews.org/2017/10/05/drive-to-make-brighton-the-uks-first-plastic-free-city/

Watts, J. (2018) Theresa May vows to eliminate UK’s plastic waste by 2042. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/plastic-waste-uk-theresa-may-2042-vow-commitment-a8152446.html


I’m moving to Edinburgh this month and I’m looking for Personal Assistants. Check out the ad and share it here: https://rebeccafarren.com/2017/12/27/im-recruiting-personal-assistants-in-edinburgh-deadline-extended/


3 thoughts on “‘Plastic Free’ campaigns are failing disabled people, and it’s scary!

  1. An interesting article for me, reading this as someone who is not disabled. Some of the reasons why plastic pre-packaged food is still needed at the moment for those who do have mobility or dexterity challenges may not have occurred to me unless they were pointed it out. I know thats probably sad but we often only know what we have personally experienced, and we dont always see other needs or uses for things.

    I take your point about special products and stigma, but I have to disagree with your approach to dealing with it. If you are unable to walk, you need a wheelchair – this is something specially designed for those who cannot walk. It is not universal – if I can walk, I wont use it.
    Ramps for building access are built for those with mobility issues – ie cannot navigate stairs – and the same with chair lifts. I could also mention hoists for baths and so on. These are all built with a purpose in mind – to help those who need to get in or out of a building. in and out of a bath etc.

    To try and pretend that there is no need for special products for those who are disabled is misleading. Rather than that approach, an alternative could be on removing the stigma around the need and use of such products. Surely that’s a better and more positive approach?
    As I say, I do not have a disability, therefore cannot personally empathise with anyone who is as to how they actually feel – but maybe this would help to address those feelings in some way.

    I understand that people want to be treated equally and seen as a person, and not be defined by their disability, but there is no getting away from the fact that we are all different, we all have different needs and that precludes a one-size fits all policy to address those needs.
    If we start to ignore those needs by creating a utopia which tries to cover everyone, we may end up creating things that no-one can use – and be in a worse position overall.

    There are no easy answers, but it’s good to be raising the debate and ensuring that in the wider scheme of things, voices of those affected are not lost in the clamour to be ‘seen to be doing something’ by the Government.

    1. That’s really interesting, because it’s literally exactly how I thought about universal design the first time I heard about it. I’m disabled, of course I’m going to need specially adapted things! How can you make things accessible without adapting them? But the more I see universal design in practice the more I’m convinced it works. You’re right, of course we are always going to need some specialist equipment like wheelchairs and hoists, but it’s about questioning whether a new ‘special’ product is needed every time there is an access barrier, or if we can adapt what’s already there. Ramps, lifts and handrails are an example of universal design, because they might be built to accommodate wheelchair users, but they can be used by everyone and make life easier for older people too. We don’t think universal design can work because we can’t see it when it’s there. Siri is an example of universal design, everyone uses it but it makes life much easier for disabled people.

      It’s like, everyone shares videos on Facebook of high-tech wheelchairs that can climb stairs, and they are awesome, but they are certainly not going to be available on the NHS any time soon- I had to fight for them to fund my standard power chair- so surely we should be focusing on making the environment more accessible rather than a product for the individual. Of course you are right in saying we need to remove the stigma around equipment and it’s not about saying we’re all the same and that we’ll never need any specialised products, but shifting the focus from specialised products as the go-to answer towards adapting every day things so that everyone can use them.

    2. But wheelchairs aren’t just for people who can’t walk. They’re for people who get fatigued or recovering from injuries too. Actually only about 25% of wheelchair users can’t walk.

Leave a Reply