There's an unexpected downfall to banning plastic straws. Here's what to consider.
Cities are starting to ban plastic straws in an effort to minimize waste. Great news, right?
Well, that depends.
Nobody likes waste, but sometimes in our rush to eliminate it, we don't think through the consequences of our actions. Take, for example, the push to ban plastic straws.
As of July 1, restaurants in Seattle are banned from giving customers non-recyclable plastic utensils or straws. Restaurants can still provide customers with a number of durable or compostable utensils or straws upon request.
Other cities that have banned or restricted the use of straws include Edmonds, Washington; Miami Beach and Fort Myers Beach, Florida; Monmouth Beach, New Jersey; and a slew of California towns including Alameda, Berkeley, Carmel, Davis, Malibu, Manhattan Beach, Oakland, Richmond, and San Luis Obispo.
But for some people, the disappearance of plastic straws is really bad news.
Flexible, single-use plastic straws are what make it possible for many disabled people to drink beverages. Eliminating them means requiring people to drink directly from the lip of their cup — a function that many disabled people simply aren't able to perform.
Many have suggested commonsense alternatives to plastic straws, like paper or metal ones. But in an interview with iNews, Scottish disability rights activist Jamie Szymkowiak explained exactly why popular alternatives don't meet the needs of some disabled individuals.
Permanent straw options, like metal or bamboo, are too hard for some people who rely on the flexibility of a plastic straw. (Injury is also a risk.) Biodegradable paper straws have a tendency to disintegrate when placed into heated drinks — which can pose a hazard of its own — and porous silicone straws require cleaning immediately after use.
Some might ask why people who need access to old-school plastic straws don't just purchase and bring their own wherever they go.
And sure, that is technically a solution. But making disabled people pay for something that's available to everyone else for free is a type of tax. While it's not necessarily an expensive tax, these types of things add up, and implementing a policy that makes the simple act of drinking prohibitive to certain groups sets a bad precedent.
The real problem is that cities considering restrictions simply aren't taking disabled voices into account.
Gabrielle Peters, a disabled writer living in Vancouver, has been keeping tabs on her city's plans to ban straws. What's concerning to her is that even after disability advocates presented information to elected officials, she felt their concerns were largely ignored.
Also troubling to Peters is the fact that the specific push to ban straws appears to be driven by a viral video about a turtle with a straw stuck in its nostril rather than on researched facts and statistics.
"We should feel compelled to act," she says. "But it is essential we temper our emotional response with considered thought so we don't respond in a way that ends up doing something that causes additional, different, and potentially more widespread suffering."
Peters' solution is simple: "People who don’t need straws should not use them. People who do should."
"We need to make straws accessible to those who need them," she says. "Don't turn them into a medical item, which will negatively affect availability and lead to increased expense and stigma."
As someone with dysphagia, a condition marked by a difficulty swallowing, Peters has at points relied on straws to avoid burns, broken glasses, and spilled drinks. (She's careful to note, though, that straws won't necessarily help all people with dysphagia.)
"Our solutions and adaptations are not something you can neatly chart. We figure out what works for our bodies AND our lives," she says.
In this case, that might mean people who don't need straws voluntarily choosing not to use them while also letting them remain available for those who do.
This photo shows an injured Marine, but it's important to remember that disability takes many forms and isn't necessarily something the average observer can see in someone else. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.
It's important to look clearly at a problem before jumping to a "solution" that doesn't actually make sense.
Maybe a plastic straw ban wouldn't personally affect you; maybe it seems like a small price to pay if it has a big impact on improving the health of the world's oceans. But here's the thing: It doesn't!
What makes the entire debate over straws that much more confusing is the fact that disposable straws don't actually contribute much to the abundance of plastic waste relative to other items in the ocean. So by proposing a ban on them, we're asking disabled people to sacrifice a lot in order to gain just a little in the fight for environmental health. And by doing that, we're demonstrating a frightening lack of empathy.
As a society, we are far too quick to write off the concerns of marginalized groups as insignificant or inconvenient.
The next time someone comes to you with a concern, especially if it relates to inclusion or accessibility, try to make a real effort to actually hear what they have to say, and then maybe ask yourself why something like banning a plastic straw is so important to you, anyway.
If we can't take care of each other, we can't take care of the earth. So let's start there.