For the last several years, there’s been an all-out war on single-use plastic straws.
Companies like Starbucks have fully phased out plastic straws and cities like San Francisco and Seattle have passed legislation banning single-use plastic dinnerware, including straws.
While it might seem like a “win” for the environmental movement (more on that later), it’s actually a huge loss. Why? Because it entirely disregards the necessity of these straws for people who are paralyzed, have mobility or strength issues, have poor motor coordination, or rely on medicines that have to be taken with a straw.
Plastic Straws and Eco-Ableism
Policies that ban single-use straws effectively ignore the fact that those with disabilities relating to mobility or strength rely on these straws to drink. It’s actually a form of eco-ableism that has become prevalent throughout the environmentalist movement (more on eco-ableism here). It also actively ignores the history of the single-use bendy straw and why it was designed in the first place.
As many people don’t know, these straws were first used in hospitals to help patients drink more easily while in bed and for those with conditions who made drinking out of a cup or non-flexible straw impossible. It’s now become a crucial tool for many people with disabilities.
While Joseph Friedman’s original concept came from observing his daughter at a soda fountain, the first targeted sales of the “flex-straw” were to hospitals in 1947. “Bendy straws” are now frequently cited as an early example of #UniversalDesign. #disability #history #straws pic.twitter.com/TRF9okoJRj
— Lawrence Carter-Long (@LCarterLong) July 10, 2018
Although there are now many proposed alternatives to replace single-use plastic straws, most of them just aren’t viable options for those affected by the straw bans. Metal, glass, bamboo, and acrylic straws pose a risk of injury, while paper straws pose choking risks. Silicone straws aren’t bendable. Plant-based straws pose an allergy risk. And the list of issues just goes on and on.
Norway will officially ban single-use plastic on July 3rd. This is a good time to bring back why banning plastic straws is extremely ableist. But I am by no means surprised that this is coming from the same government that decided to vote no on rights for disabled people. pic.twitter.com/0IXYJLDHUs
— Ina Aletheia (@inaaletheia) March 11, 2021
And reusable straws are also off the list. Writer Erin Vallely, who lives with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, explained,
“Such straws must be properly sterilized after every use. For those whose disability or living situation makes this impractical, if not downright impossible, reusable straws are simply not an option.”
On top of that, these bans also remove the opportunity for spontaneity for those who require plastic straws. Lawrence Carter-Long, the communications director for the National Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, said,
“[W]hat if you decide on the spur of the moment to go have a drink with friends after work but forgot your reusable straw that day? [That] doesn’t leave a lot of room for spontaneity — something nondisabled folks get to largely take for granted.”
Besides, asking disabled individuals to carry their own reusable straws with them is missing the point. In an article for the Washington Post, writer and disability advocate Karin Hitselberger explained,
“The inevitable questions — ‘Why don’t you bring your own straws?’ ‘Why don’t you use a metal straw?’ — miss the larger point. This isn’t about straws. It’s about access.”
“Access is about the quality of life, and being able to have the same experiences and opportunities as a nondisabled person, with some adaptations.”
— Pam 💐 (@PamTweetsAAC) July 10, 2018
Some single-use plastic straw bans do make exceptions for those with disabilities by requiring businesses to provide these straws upon request. But this doesn’t take into account the enforcement issues surrounding this policy or the violation of requiring someone to have to divulge their disability in order to get a plastic straw. Nobody should be forced to disclose personal medical information just so they can get a drink of water.
The Ineffectiveness of Straw Bans
The irony of it all, of course, is how little plastic straws contribute to ocean waste in the grand scheme of things. Of the 8 million tons of plastic that end up in the ocean every year, only 0.025% is from plastic straws. That’s right, 0.025%. Meanwhile, 46% of the plastic found in oceans is from fishing nets.
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Not to mention that the single-use plastic straw ban isn’t even that effective when it comes to the climate change fight. Compostable straws end up at landfills too and can take just as long as plastic versions to break down.
We also know that corporations are actually the main contributors to climate change, not individual consumers.
So why have environmentalists become so obsessed with single-use plastic straws? YouTuber Sarah Todd Hammer, who was diagnosed with Acute Flaccid Myelitis as a child, put it best in one of her videos:
“It’s easy for able-bodied people to eliminate them and hop on this trendy environmental movement and feel like they’re making difference.”
So, What Do We Do Now?
If you care about the environment, it’s time you make your activism intersectional. This means supporting the disabled community and demanding that manufacturers and corporations create an affordable, environmentally, and disability-friendly alternative to single-use plastic straws.
It also means refocusing our energy on environmental solutions that drive real change. It’s time we put more pressure on the primary contributors of climate change: corporate polluters. We need to call for legislation that holds them accountable now, while we still have a chance.
Let’s not sacrifice a significant group of our fellow human beings to help reinforce the facade that opting out of single-use plastic straws will save our planet just to make ourselves feel a little bit better.
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Shannon Vize is a freelance writer and content strategist living in Brooklyn, NY. Her writing has been published by Elite Daily, Taylor Magazine, CIO, and Forbes. When she’s not hate-binging the latest episode of The Bachelor franchise, she’s busy trying to dismantle the patriarchy by dissecting the latest anti-feminist theme in pop culture to anyone who will listen.