• Kathryn Hulland

Making sustainable choices whilst living with chronic illness

I know I'm not alone in feeling guilty about my carbon footprint and at times overwhelmed at the mammoth task ahead of us trying to live in a more sustainable, eco way. As someone living with chronic illness, the thought of being able to live sustainably is just another thing that feels impossible at times. With so many people living with disabilities it's important we talk about how difficult it can be to live as sustainably as possible when you don't have the same access to resources that others might have.

There are many considerations for an individual to make when trying to live sustainably, including housing, travel, food, packaging, energy use, clothing and so much more. I hope this post will help us all think more deeply about what sustainable living means for everyone – whether they're disabled, chronically ill, low-income, or elderly. Let's work together to make sure any discussion on sustainability includes everyone. There's no one-size-fits all way of living sustainably for anyone, and even less so if you have a disability and/or chronic illness; everyone has different needs and abilities. I should also note that many people living with disability and/or chronic illness do manage very well, the below is just my personal experience and struggles, and I know I am not alone in them! With the right kind of support, people with disabilities and/or chronic illness can live more sustainably, but it can be harder due to their needs, for which many standard resources are poorly equipped to accommodate them. Let's take a look at just a few of the obvious issues faced: Plastic Straws

This has been a hotly-debated topic, and they are now banned in the UK. I am not a plastic straw user, and not advocating we should use them but they have turned into a bit of a scapegoat, it's as if because there has been a ban on plastic straws nothing else needs doing, hooray we've saved the planet.... errm no, maybe we can ban those plastic balloon arches which are so popular next as a starter. But I digress... for many disabled people plastic straws are their only option, no other type works for them, metal ones are dangerous and others are very difficult to ensure they are sanitised correctly, incorrect sanitisation for many could end up being life threatening. Visiting a Zero Waste Store

Shopping at a zero waste store is an amazing way to take steps towards living more sustainably, but when you have mobility issues it can turn into a bit of a challenge! When I visit firstly I have to ensure I have the energy to get into town and carry what I need. I often plan to go one day then can't go, it's normally on around my sixth time of planning I get around to going. Most of the time I can manage alone when I do go, but recently I find I am needing to take help. Once there the brain fog can kick in, even with a list I can struggle to think straight about what I need and how to do it. I am sometimes shaking a bit which can make filling tubs tricky. If I am having a sensory overload day I also struggle if other people are in the shop, especially now with Covid as I have to be aware to keep a distance. I get dizzy a lot, my spatial awareness can be affected and I bump into things easily. Then there's the grip in my hand and holding on to things, I have to be careful not to drop anything! Once loaded I have to carry it all to my car. Fortunately, I have a brilliant zero waste store near me, the owner has let me come after hours before so it's quiet, she has delivered to my house too so I am very lucky. I also have the help of my mum whenever I need it. To manage my visits I break them down, I tend to do food on one trip and liquid refills a different day so it's not too much in one go. I have lists at home of everything I normally buy and I write on my tubs what will go in which one so I don't have to look at lists in the shop, just my tubs/bags. Before I leave the house I check my tubs and list on what I need to make sure I have enough, I still manage to get this wrong but fortunately the shop has paper bags! When I take mum she weighs the tubs for me, I fill some and so does she. It works well. For some there is also the issue of not being able to reach certain shelves, and possibly not being able to help themselves with any of it. If this is you do ask the person running the shop to help as it's more than likely you'll find them very friendly and happy to help. Understandably it can be daunting to even try when you know it will be a struggle so even getting in touch before a visit might help to reassure you. Walking instead of driving

To live sustainably we need to use less fossil fuels, cars are a no-no. However for many people cars are the only way they can get around. I often hear people talk about how they are walking to school or cycling to work, this is wonderful but as I hear it guilt grips me and a bit of envy as I would love to have that choice, but I simply can't walk that far or cycle.

Over the years I have found public transport isn't always very accessible without driving to it, and right now with a dodgy immune system and Covid I try to avoid being in enclosed areas anyway. I also panic about buses after an altercation some years ago when I was told I should be standing up for someone else. Just because I was young does not automatically mean I could stand. It was massively embarrassing but I stayed sitting as had I stood I would have fainted, I was going through treatment and on my way to an appointment. I got lifts and taxis after that! These days just the thought of getting Grace to school on the bus is exhausting! Sadly, even if a bus stopped right outside where I was travelling too and from I don’t think I’d manage it at the moment, a journey that’s 10 minutes in the car can be an hour on a bus and when your energy is limited it’s just too much alongside the overwhelm and sensory overload. It is a privilege to be able to make the choice to walk to reduce a carbon footprint, but of course it is also a privilege to own a car. I used to walk into town and back a few days a week, I hope one day I can do that again. Cooking from scratch v convenience foods/microwave meals

Cooking from scratch seems fairly obvious as a way to reduce the amount of plastic packaging, if you are able to do the right shopping and cook, not everyone can. For me I struggle because of my fatigue, I can't always stand in the kitchen to cut up veg and stir pots at the oven. Even sitting down to do these things can sometimes be too much. I also struggle with brain fog and find I can get massive blocks and not even manage to think of something to cook. I do now have a few easy go to recipes like pasta with some fried onion, mushrooms and tofu or nuts with a bit of soya sauce thrown in. I don't mind this and I can normally manage to cook it. Some days I can't even manage that thought. I am lucky that my partner will help on occasion, and he does Grace's meals. Sometimes I end up with just some fruit or a bit of toast, and now and then a takeaway. I rarely have microwave meals but if I lived alone I probably would and for some they are all they can manage.

I was recently having a discussion about how to make cooking easier and one obvious choice is buying ready chopped veg – but they all come in plastic bags and I try to choose organic when I can for health reasons, organic is less available frozen it appears. Shopping choices Online shopping is the only choice for many people living with a disability and there isn't much choice about whether it arrives in plastic. There are places you can go online and order delicious plastic free organic food, but they come and a cost. I do order from Riverford when I can, but we can't afford to do this for every shop, and we are fortunate to be able to manage it at all. I haven't been in a supermarket for 18 months, I find them hard to cope with due to the sensory issues and my fatigue. I find online shopping far easier. I have discovered Ocado who offer a better range of food choices so an order from them combined with the Riverford veg box and some staples from the zero waste store I am doing what I can, it still never feels enough though. Grow your own This is something I'd love to do, and I do try but it's so hard. I have to rely on others for the physical digging and I can't always manage to get out and water. I grow a few things but right now there's no chance of doing it on a grander scale as much as I'd love to - future dreams! Having your choice taken away Some people being cared for may find they are unable to make their own choices as the shopping is done by someone else. This can be hugely frustrating and ideally if you are in that position you should be able to talk to the person about how you feel and whether better choices can be made. Realistically however this is not always possible and for many living with a disability being reliant on someone else can mean their hands are tied. Affordability Another factor to consider is the price of buying ethically and sustainably, doing this often costs more. I want to eat organic as I believe it is better for mine and my daughter's health & the planet, however we simply can't afford to. I compromise and try to buy organic versions of the worst offenders (search Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen), the rest we buy organic as and when we can afford it. Ethical clothing is always more expensive, look at the difference in price for a top at Primark compared to one at Frugi for example, of course people will shop at Primark! It's not good to do so for the people making the item, or the massive environmental impact fast fashion is having on our planet, but I can see why people do. I try to buy second hand as much as I can and choose ethical brands new, looking out for their sales! Recently I wanted to buy some toothpaste from Green People for Grace, it was £4.95 with about another £4 postage, I could get it on Amazon with no postage. I don't want to buy from Amazon but I also cannot afford £8.95 for a tube of toothpaste! I looked into things like solar panels, air source heat pumps and other options but none of them are we in a position to afford anytime soon. And don’t get me started on cars – an electric car would be wonderful but low income families aren’t going to be able to afford one any time soon!

Changing banks, energy suppliers, phone suppliers etc A consideration when changing suppliers is the amount of admin you may have to do. This can be overwhelming and physically exhausting, it's not an option for everyone. I often find it overwhelming when I try to do these things and have to break it down, and choose the days I do it on carefully. If I am having an over sensitive brain foggy day there is no point in trying! Recycling

Recycling is of course a great way to help, ideally we start with not buying and then reusing before we get to recycling but when we get there we must do it! It’s good to see more recycling options becoming available, like taking certain items back to the supermarket for them to recycle, dropping off blister packs for recycling, Terracycle etc. but people with disability and/or chronic illness may not be able to manage to get to these places. Litter picking

This is another thing that I really want to be involved in. I think it would be great to get out with Grace and pick up some litter in the local park and around where we live, sadly I just don't have the energy to do it. I am hopeful one day I will, and maybe if I can get my mobility scooter repaired I could do some from that. It is frustrating though. Joining in positive action groups Something I would really love to do is to be involved with our local plastic free and sustainable groups. I am lucky where I live that we do have them and they do make a difference. I want to help but I have learned from experience I can't manage me and Grace so there's no way I can volunteer to help someone else! I hope one day I will be able to offer more. Medical needs I dread to think the amount of plastic I've got through at the hospital, doctors, nurse visits etc. All those tubes, syringes, masks, PPE... it's never ending. Then there's the medication itself and how that arrives, there's no choice. Additionally there's items available to buy which might make life more comfortable, inevitably they are rarely very environmentally friendly. Tips You come first - If you are not well you can't help others, and it is ok to focus on just you. It took me a long time to accept this, partly because I felt guilty and partly because I really want to be doing things, but I can't. Me and Grace come first and then we do what we can from there. Plan ahead - I could have kicked myself with the toothpaste as only a month previously I had ordered the Green People sun lotion, if I had thought ahead I could have got them in one delivery. Research - look in to what you want and keep a note of the most affordable places to buy them, ready for when you need them again. Don't overwhelm yourself - start small. I have been reading a lot about sustainable living and it is really overwhelming, one day at a time - even one small change is a step in the right direction. No pressure – try and enjoy yourself when making your sustainable choices, see if there's anyway to have some fun with it and take the pressure off! Enjoy the process, not just the end result. Ask for help - if you want to change electricity supplier and are struggling with the paperwork, phone calls etc. don't be afraid to ask someone to help you. If you have recycling items you'd like dropping off, ask.

Final word Trying to live more sustainably is hard, it is even harder when you have a disability and/or chronic illness and some options are taken away from you. The trick is to not be hard on yourself, to enjoy what you can do and don't beat yourself up when you cannot do something. We are all different and we should celebrate those differences instead of being judgmental. We need to help each other, support each other and try to understand the challenges others may face. We need to make space for everyone and look after each other. I have in no way covered all the sustainable challenges people living with disability and/or chronic illness have, just the ones I face. Of course there will also be people who live with disability and/or chronic illness who can do all the above. Despite the above there's alot of changes I've made which you can read about here. Some I can keep up with all the time, others may slip every now and then but most of these are permanent changes and things I do. Do you have any tips?! If so I’d love to hear them.

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