The misplaced guilt of diabetes waste


Diabetes comes with a side serve of guilt in so many ways. Glucose levels above target? Guilty that I’m contributing to developing diabetes-related complications. Need to stop to treat a hypo? Guilty that I’m not participating fully in work, or focusing on family and friend. Forking out for diabetes paraphernalia? Guilty that the family budget is going to diabetes rather than fun stuff like (more) doughnuts from the local Italian pasticceria. Eating (more) doughnuts from the local Italian Pasticceria? Guilty that I’m not eating the way most diabetes dietitians recommend. Depositing the pile of diabetes debris on the bedside table? Guilty that I’m the reason the world is going to hell in a handbasket because of all the waste. 

The other day, I did a show and tell of diabetes tech. I brought along all the things I use, and things I don’t use. I’d been asked to show and explain just how the tech I use works and what it all looks like, but I wanted to show that there were other options as well. The people I was speaking with had a general idea of what diabetes was all about but didn’t have the detail. So, while they understood what an insulin pump was, they didn’t really understand what it means when someone says, ‘I need to change my canula’.

I did a pump line change to show the process and all the components. I didn’t need to change my sensor, so I brought along a spare and a dummy kit that is used for demo purposes. I also had some disposable and reusable pens and pen tips, blood glucose strips and a meter, alcohol wipes and batteries for the devices that need them. 

At the end of my demonstration and discussion, someone looked at all the debris. ‘That’s a lot of waste, isn’t it?’ I nodded. ‘It really is. And I think about that all the time. I hear people with diabetes lamenting just how much there is.’

‘It seems that what you use produces more waste than if you were using the reusable pens and a meter you showed us. Wouldn’t it be better for the environment if you did that?’

Yes, friend. Yes, it would. But it wouldn’t be good for me, my mental health or my diabetes. I was reminded of when our little girl was new and a man at the supermarket saw frazzled new-mum Renza covered in baby vomit and probably wearing my PJs, juggling baby and a box of Huggies and asked why I insisted on using disposable nappies rather than cloth. ‘Disposable nappies take 100 years to break down.’ In my new-mum fog, I looked at him, wondering what on earth I’d done to deserve this unsolicited approach, and said ‘Yes, I know. But if I had to deal with cloth nappies it would take me 100 seconds to break down.’ I blabbered on about other ways that we are more environmentally responsible, and then scurried away, adding environmental guilt to mother guilt and diabetes guilt

Diabetes waste is horrendous. There’s a lot of it. And we should think about it. I love the work that Weronika Burkot and Type1EU led a few years ago. You can still find details of the Reduce Diabetes Technology Waste Campaign online. The project aimed to highlight the amount of diabetes tech waste one person with diabetes produces in 3 days, 1 week, 2 week and 1 month. It was startling to see the piles of trash accumulate. 

But it can’t be solely the responsibility of the of us living with condition to address the issue. It’s brilliant that we talk about it – and we should do that. The Type1EU campaign got a lot of people thinking and talking about it for the first time. And we absolutely can and should do what we can to minimise our waste. I make sure that everything possible is recycled; I stretch out canula changes to four days when I feel it’s safe to do so; I restart sensors three or four times; I refill pump cartridges, sometimes to the point of them getting sticky; I use spent pump lines to tie the rose bushes in the garden; I’m using a fifteen year old pump – the last time I bought a new one was in 2013. I do all these things to try to reduce waste. I do what I can. And, as an advocate, I have sat around tables with device manufacturers and begged that they consider how they can be more sustainable in their approach to diabetes tech, asking them what can be reused? What can be easily recycled? What can be removed from current packaging? 

But the reality is, we don’t get a choice in how products are packaged. We don’t get to choose what the devices look like or the excess packages that surround them. We don’t get a say in the requirements of regulators who place stringent demands on manufacturers to make sure products meet safety obligations. 

Laying into people with diabetes as needing to be more responsible without looking further upstream at just who is responsible for the product we pick up from the pharmacy, or have delivered to our door, seems unfair. 

I gently pointed out to the person who was (most likely unintentionally) piling on the guilt with his comment about how I was contributing to the despair that is the condition of our environment, that his comment really was unjust and misplaced. To suggest that someone with a crappy medical condition that requires so much effort and attention, abandons the technology and treatments that go towards making it just a tiny bit less crappy is not really addressing the root problem. It can’t all be about individual responsibility. There needs to be scrutiny on everyone along the supply chain, but the least scrutiny and blame should lie at the feet of those of us with diabetes. 

Image is from this resource. I wrote and oversaw the design and photography of the first edition of this booklet years ago when working at Diabetes Victoria.





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