I first heard some of Tami’s story before she was a blogger herself. A couple years ago, she recorded an episode on FIRE Drill Podcast. Disability and chronic illness is rarely discussed in the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) community – oftentimes it seems to be overlooked on purpose because it flies in the face of the “everyone can do it” and “just save half your income” narrative.

Tami’s story looks very different than mine as she has many hurdles that I simply don’t have to think about. The same is true when it comes to sustainability and zero waste. She lives an amazingly ecofrugal lifestyle, but it looks very different than mine in some ways. And in others – like not using toilet paper – it looks very much the same.

I adore the candid nature of Tami’s writing, and so appreciate that she decided to blog and share our story. We need all different voices in this community, and hers is a wonderful and unique one. The candid, straightforward way she educates while telling her story is excellent, and I believe that personal story will be more likely to influence others more than a hundred news articles filled with data.

Meet Tami!

Disability and Sustainability

Never have two words that fit together less, been in a title together. This is my experience as a person with multiple disabilities and chronic illness.

Disability and chronic illness often come with vast amounts of medical waste, expense, and compromise that often leave the earth in a lurch. As someone who cares a great deal about zero waste and environmental impact, I have tried for years to reduce my own footprint. In some ways, I have been very successful.

I have not used toilet paper in 4 years. The average person uses 100 rolls of toilet paper a year. It takes 37 gallons of water to make one roll of toilet paper. In addition, the tp is bleached, and it utilizes a huge amount of power to run all the machines. I’ve saved 14,800 gallons of water by using a reusable system. (Angela: plus the electricity, transportation, and clear cut forest costs – goods cost so much more than the sticker price)

I make an effort to buy items with less packaging and to bulk buy. I recycle as much as possible, including making trips to a center for glass recycle. I went without garbage service for years as I produced so little.

That sounds great, right? However, research will show you that reducing and reusing will have far less impact on the environment. I now make an effort to reuse glass jars instead of recycling them. I try to utilize everything in a new way around the house if I can and I make an effort to buy used as much as possible.

Toilet paper / family cloth set up

Low Impact Medical Waste

My medical waste is not huge, but that’s just because of my particular disability and health issues. One choice I made that greatly lowered my medical waste was utilizing a Continuous Glucose Monitoring system instead of a standard glucose meter. I greatly reduced my waste because I’ve all but eliminated lancets and test strips.

A month could easily produce an excess of 100 of each from me. For another diabetic, it could easily be in excess of 500 pieces of waste depending on how often they tests. While a CGM has worked well for me, it won’t work for all diabetics, but seeing the waste reduction associated with it was wonderful.

However, it has had an increased cost that I have incurred. By reducing waste, and not tossing hundreds pieces of medical waste a month, I increased my out of pocket costs by $60. I pay more, to waste less. As it often seems to be!

Recycling Options for Medical Supplies

Prescription bottles can be recycled and medication collections are more available and frequent than they were in the past. An additional cost borne by many people with disabilities is increased garbage bills due to having to have it picked up more frequently due to the contents.

A person who is incontinent will create more trash, but often have to have it picked up (less than full) more often to avoid issues with neighbors or animals due to smell. Anyone with more advanced health issues may produce prodigious amounts of plastic waste.

Everything is packed sterile/sanitized and sealed, and often the contents are then trashed after. Reuse is very limited in the medical community for good reasons. 

Let’s put a pin in medical waste. It exists. There is little to be done to change it, and it is a necessity of life for many people. With that in mind, let’s talk straws.

The Problem with Straw Bans

STRAWS! The media has exploded on straws of late. Mostly, I believe, due to very cute little injured turtles. I feel terrible for turtles. I do not want them to suffer. But I also do not want humans to die.

There are many people with disabilities who do not have the option of not using a straw, or the option of replacing that with a more permanent option of a reusable one. Who is going to clean and wash, prep and sterilize that reusable straw?

Many people will chronic illness or disability are compromised and prone to infection. Using a new straw each time keeps them safe. In addition, who are we burdening with additional labor? There is never enough labor to go around when it comes to chronic illness and disability.

These items need to be available for those who need them – including me after a recent heart procedure – but if you don’t need them, don’t use them. It seems as though they are being taken out as the default option in a number of places, and just removing them as an automatic item is making an impact.

Disability and Food Waste

Personally, my biggest challenge for zero waste/sustainability is food. My health and wellness go up and down, with flare ups. Sometimes I have capacity to wash, prep and cook. Often – I do not.

The problem with sustainability and zero waste is that the environmental protection aspect is often absorbed by increased labor burden on individual. These can be readily absorbed by those not disabled or chronically ill, but the labor burdens of the disabled and chronically ill are already more than most can handle.

That means I stand in the grocery store – when I am able to shop myself – and I debate: the loose squash I put in my mesh bag, or the already cubed in a plastic container? If I have to think about it, I go with the cubed squash.

I have had to throw out more food than I would ever care to admit because I have overestimated my ability to process it at the time of purchase. Buying prepackaged or prepared foods is often a way of life for those with disabilities or chronic illness and I would argue often their largest contribution to waste.

This is reality for a small group of people. Which means that the rest of the world needs to be that much better, not that we need to ban their lifesaving straws. Eliminating public access to straws would limit access and burden the disabled unfairly. If you don’t need a straw, don’t use one. If you are able to cut a squash, buy a whole one. If we all do what we are capable of, the excess of one group who needs these advantages to live is by far outweighed by the improvements of others.  


14 thoughts on “Disability and Sustainability: Pursuing Zero Waste While Chronically Ill

  1. Thanks for sharing this Angela, and for writing this out Tami – the voices of folks with disabilities is sorely needed in the finance and environmentalist worlds. I had a sibling with disabilities growing up and the only way they could drink was via straws; not using straws would mean having yet another degree of “normalcy” taken away if you want to eat at a restaurant or just enjoy a meal with friends.

    Also, finding a balance between being ecofrugal and living with disabilities is a much bigger topic than you’d think. 15% of the world’s population lives with disabilities, which is by no means a small group of people. Good on you both for making ecofrugality as accessible as possible!

    1. The straw thing is something I’ve meant to blogrant about for a while now.

  2. Thank you, Angela and Tara, for shedding light on these topics! One of the things that shocked me most as a nursing student was the amount of waste the medical community produces. It’s astounding and quite depressing, but you’re correct that there’s little we can do about it. We try to reuse everything we can, but that honestly amounts to very little. Infection control isn’t something we can circumvent for obvious reasons.

    During my waitressing days, I saw how much we wasted there too and it made me sad. Our world is built around once-and-done items. We need a better way.

    I second Angela’s words that we need other voices in the community to represent the voices of those who aren’t able to save half because, truly, not everyone can.

  3. Tami, thank you for sharing! As often happens, when I hear a compelling story, I just have so many questions. 🙂 Imma pop over to your site and do some reading.

    I think the takeaway here for most of us is – do what you can to reduce your personal waste and stop judging and have a little empathy for ppl who don’t do it like you. And frankly, those ppl who don’t do it like you may be falling short on other parts of a working towards zero waste lifestyle.

    Angela, thanks for providing a platform for others to share!

  4. Tami, what a wonderful contribution you’ve just made to the zero waste conversation with this article. I really appreciate gaining more exposure on the topic from the perspective of someone with disabilities, who because of it is so intricately connected to the healthcare system and thus medical waste. You make a very important point that many of us are doing the best we can to reduce our waste, some of us are able to do more in certain areas and others do more in other areas – nobody is perfect.

    My solutions-oriented mind can’t help but wonder about the potential for a time bank and/or some social capital to help you connect with someone who could dice that produce for free so you could buy it whole instead of pre-sliced pieces in more packaging. If I remember correctly though, you live in a more remote area without a time bank or much else along those lines. Maybe some day in the future though….

    And as others have already commented, Angela – thanks for offering Tami the space to share her story.

    1. Time banks are something I would love to catch on more for sure.

  5. Love this! I always appreciate sharing the more nuanced look at a movement that’s super centered on… uh… me: white, able-bodied, CIS women. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Tami is such a wonderful voice to follow! Everything she writes is honest and transparent and I learn so much from her.

  6. I absolutely love this. I’m chronically ill/disabled and have had these conversations with my mother who is as well quite often. Thank you for the new insight and ideas.

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