Zero-Waste Eldercare- Part 1: Defining the Problem

On Christmas Eve, 2014, our precious dog, Lainie, developed a life-threatening intestinal blockage thanks to her ingestion of a soiled Depends left in a location she could easily access. An overnight stay with IV fluids and medications at the emergency animal hospital saved her life without surgery. Lainie made an amazing recovery once the blockage was cleared and we are so happy to have her back with us.

However, we are not happy about the enormous vet bills and remain concerned about a possible repeat of the event in the future. These concerns are a catalyst for completing the transition to a zero-waste lifestyle that I started several years ago. Eliminating garbage in my home will eliminate some of the attraction animals have to its smelly contents. Only problem is, the zero-waste concept seems to be an oxymoron when it comes to eldercare.

I’ve been slowly working in easy changes over several years to zero-waste such as reusable bags, bulk groceries, recycled toilet paper, and signing up for no preference service to eliminate junk mail. Seattle has a great city-provided recycling and compost program, and partners with a number of recyclers in our area. But, the complete elimination of all trash has eluded me at this point as our culture has a now deeply-rooted disposable products mentality. I’ve decided that a Zero-Waste New Year’s Resolution seems like an interesting and worthwhile challenge.

Eldercare and Increased Garbage

When Dad moved in with us, our garbage production sky-rocketed from one bag per month to 2-3 bags per week. We had gotten ourselves down to one bag of trash a month by pre-cycling, recycling, and using reusable items instead of disposable. I was then able to downsize our trash can to the micro-can size provided by Seattle Utilities, and saved money on our bill. We were on the road to completely eliminating all trash from our home and with it the cost of city trash disposal. However, Dad’s arrival reversed that trend.

Like many Americans, including myself at one point, Dad is accustomed to using disposable tissues rather than handkerchiefs to blow his nose, creating one source of increased garbage immediately. Dad tends to only use a small part of the center section of the tissue before disposal. Combined with his constant nasal drip problem, he uses 1-2 boxes of tissues every week, or 52-110 boxes per year. Even with purchasing 100% recycled tissues, this was a considerable source of new waste in our home. And, Lainie has decided that shredding soiled tissues all over the floor is nearly as satisfying as eating soiled Depends.

Another source of increased waste was the purchase of pre-packaged food items. Dad has a deep and enduring love for snack foods as evidenced by the 10 pounds he gained in the first 6 months he lived with us. Additionally, trekking Dad around to his doctors’ appointments and social events meant that he and I were frequently far from home. Traffic, long appointment wait times, and other delays meant that I packed snacks before outings with Dad. Potato chips, corn chips, and energy bars are all packaged in non-recyclable packaging, and eliminating them from Dad’s diet to save his waistline, and our pocketbook and micro trash can, led to considerable and ongoing conflict. To a person accustomed to eating snack foods, a sliced apple with peanut butter just isn’t appealing. Dad’s dementia has further complicated this problem because he isn’t capable of making the connection between consumption of snack foods and health problems; as with children, we are simply left to eliminate the snack foods and ignore his complaints.

Along with snack foods, Dad’s Meals on Wheels also generate a small amount of trash. Each cardboard meal tray comes with a plastic cover that must be disposed of in the trash. The trays themselves are compostable so this is not a serious problem, but the plastic covers always have a little food stuck to them. Lainie is of course very interested in the kitchen trash as a source of interesting new gastric delicacies so we have to be vigilant about keeping the cupboard door closed. I considered canceling the Meals on Wheels, but the program has been such a huge benefit to our family that it outweighs the plastic covers.

Other new sources of trash occurred in smaller quantities: baby wipes, cough drop wrappers, Q-tips, plastic drinking straws, disposable gloves, etc.

But, the biggest new source of trash in our home was Dad’s soiled incontinence products, which are all disposable plastic and adsorbent materials. Each week, we empty one 20-gallon trash bag of soiled incontinence products from Dad’s bathroom and send it to the landfill. To add insult to injury, disposable adult incontinence products are expensive. Dad uses about 5 pairs of Depends per day at a cost of $0.50 per pair. Over the course of a year this adds up to over $900 per year on underwear alone! An elderly person’s medical expenses can eat up half their income, and this added expense of incontinence products can be a significant financial hardship.

Addressing these challenges in the Zero-Waste Eldercare context requires more retooling of our lives than most people attempting Zero-Waste because there isn’t much information available. So, next I need to dig around.