Chronic illness: a challenge to living an environmentally-friendly lifestyle

Like many people, I have tuned in to the importance of making more environmentally-friendly choices over the past couple of years. Hands up, I’m not as committed to the cause as others, but I’ve been trying to love the planet a bit more by buying less plastic, creating an epic compost heap and buying second-hand clothes where possible.

But I’ve realised recently that I get pangs of guilt when making certain choices; choices I need to make because of my health. These include driving when most people could walk and having the heating on all day. This conflict between what I would like to choose and what I need to choose to keep myself healthy is frustrating! I am faced with two compelling arguments for behaving in opposite ways.

I wanted to find out whether other people with long-term conditions experienced this conflict, so I consulted members of the Chronic Illness Bloggers community. They shared their challenges to making environmentally-friendly choices with me:

Medical packaging

Mariah at Mamas Facing Forward writes, “I have a big issue with the giant styrofoam container that I receive every month containing two syringes of my RA medication – not to mention several plastic ice packs. I’d really love to pick my medication up from the local pharmacy instead, but I’m required to get it from a speciality mail order pharmacy by my insurance.”

Collin from Collin’s IBD Chronicles shares this worry about the environmental impact of health essentials – “I use so many rubber feeding tubes!”

Car use

Jenni from glutenandme doesn’t like having to “drive short distances that you used to be able to walk.”

Liz from Despite Pain says, “The need to drive rather than walk or take public transport” is a frustration for her too.

Blogger dSavannah adds, “There’s also the fuel you wouldn’t have used if you didn’t have so many appointments to go to – to see doctors, have tests, etc – many of which aren’t nearby.”

I feel this one – there are occasions when I will drive short distances to preserve my energy. While it might be a good decision health-wise, I often feel a pang of guilt for burning that extra petrol. 

Food shopping

Shopping can be tricky enough for people with chronic illnesses, but making sustainable shopping choices is even harder.

Rachel from What a Pain says that with a chronic illness, “You order more online, increasing packaging waste. For example, an online food shop means you cannot use reusable shopping bags. Buying clothes usually means a parcel wrapped in lots of plastic, whereas in shop it would only be a plastic bag which you can refuse.”

Alisha from The Invisible F says, “I’d eat more organic (less pesticides and it’s healthier) if I could afford it – but I can’t.” Many people with chronic illnesses don’t have much extra cash due to restricted ability to work or reliance on disability benefits.

When I’m shopping I tend to buy conveniently packaged hypo treatments. Small cartons of juice are just perfect – you can stash them in your bag without worrying about leakage and they tend to be just the right amount to fix a hypo. When I’ve chosen not to buy them, I’ve really struggled to find alternatives that are as effective. But every time I pick up a six pack, shrink-wrapped in single-use plastic and laden with individually-wrapped straws, I squirm inside.

Lacking energy to take positive action

Trish from Verve says, “Activities like gardening so I can grow my own veg and keeping my own chickens to be more self-sufficient are just about impossible due to fatigue and dodgy joints.”

dSavannah says, “I hate that I’m too ill to separate my items and take to recycling centre.”

Wasteful medical admin

“Paper waste!” writes Kim from OddHogg. “Appointment cards, prescriptions, hospital letters – I get hundreds and always recycle them but it is ridiculous that a paper-free alternative is not in place.”

The NHS in the UK must be at least a decade behind in terms of using emails and texts to communicate with patients. I’m reassured by recent steps to digitise local services, but there’s still an awfully long way to go.

Energy use

I have to put the central heating on much more than I would like. I’m a cold person at the best of times, but when I’m in a flare I find I just cannot warm up. Years ago I would have scoffed at the thermostat reading 17 degrees – now I turn the heating back on, grab a third pair of socks and hug my beloved hot water bottle a little tighter.

I know the answer to all of these frustrations is that you just have to make greener choices where you can. That’s the best you can do. As the recent ‘is-palm-oil-just-bad-or-the-lesser-evil?’ debate has shown, making greener choices isn’t simple for anyone. Chronic illness is just a further complicating factor. 

Guilt is an emotion so often experienced with chronic illness, but it serves no positive purpose. So I’m going to try and turn those green guilt-pangs into positive action when I feel them. I may have to drive five minutes down the road today, but maybe I could change to a greener energy supplier? Or buy a second-hand jumper on eBay rather than a brand new one? Perhaps I could also do more to raise my concerns with pharma companies about their overuse of packaging.

When I was reflecting on these issues, it occurred to me that many of the ‘green’ changes I have been able to make have had a positive effect on my health. One happy side-effect is a better diet as we have cut down on meat and moved to more veggie meals. The kids are loving planting seeds and growing vegetables together (or at least attempting to!) I’ve also switched to bar soap and discovered it dries your skin out less than plastic-tastic liquid soaps and shower gels. So I’ll keep trying to reduce my environmental impact and look for bonus health benefits along the way.

Perhaps my conditions even benefit the planet in some ways?! My vacuum-cleaning and ironing habits are less than frequent – that’s got to be a huge electricity saver!

Has your chronic illness ever got in the way of you making green decisions? Or have you found any solutions? We’d love to hear them!

Image by Comfreak on Pixabay


  1. This is a great read and something I really struggle with myself as I’ve always been tuned in to being environmentally friendly, but I guess we can only do our best! Thanks for sharing! X


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