How to Tackle the Plastic Straw Problem Without Ignoring Disabled People

Many of us have seen heartbreaking images and video of sea turtles with plastic straws and other disposable plastics entrapped in their nostrils. Considering that our single-use plastic addiction  seriously harms marine life, it’s easy to understand why some people advocate for straw bans.

After all, if you don’t want animals to suffer and die from plastic pollution, banning the production and use of that material should be a good first step, right? Unfortunately, this view of the issue is a little simplistic — and it’s created a great deal of tension between environmental advocates and communities that actually need plastic items.

Specifically, many disabled people are becoming concerned about the rhetoric surrounding plastic straws and feel like environmental campaigners are failing to address their needs.

If you’re an ardent straw-banner and you’re bristling as you read this, hold on! I promise you can have your environmental advocacy and respect the disability community.

First, there’s one thing you and a lot of disabled people, some of whom are also environmentalists, agree upon: There’s too much plastic junk in the world, and generating more of it is extremely harmful.

It’s not just straws. It’s disposable cutlery, sterile packaging for medical supplies, pill bottles, water bottles, seemingly endless plastic packaging at grocery stores … the list goes on. There’s too much plastic in the world.

Plastic Alternatives

Many disabled people are big fans of limiting the production of new plastic, along with finding reusable non-plastic options and developing sustainable disposable alternatives. For example, the pre-cut fruit and veggies that some people rely upon to diversify their diets could someday be packaged in truly biodegradable wrappings. Or redesigns for medical supplies could make them safer and reduce the amount of plastic used.

But unfortunately, there are some cases where people have a legitimate, pressing need for plastic products. Take syringes used for injectable medications: They’re far safer and easier to keep sterile when they’re single-use plastic in sterile packaging, and needles need to be single use for safety reasons, also requiring sterile packaging.

And that same need goes for straws, too.

Some people cannot drink without the assistance of a straw, in certain cases because of paralysis, poor muscle control or muscle contractures. A straw can make the difference between staying hydrated and not being able to drink, and it also gives people independence. Imagine if you could only have a sip of water when another human provided it to you — for the rest of your life.

Some straw-banning advocates say disabled people should just rely on reusable or environmentally-friendly disposable straw products. But reusable straws can be challenging to manage, because disabled individuals may have difficulty keeping them clean and finding a good place to store them. Disabled people don’t want to use a gross metal straw that’s been rattling around in the bottom of their purse any more than you do! And for others, the lack of ability to easily sterilize straws poses a personal health risk.

Glass, bamboo and metal straws can cut people’s mouths and may not be suitable for everyone. Some silicone straws are too floppy. Paper straws may fall apart under pressure, while compostable plastics aren’t suitable for all beverages — or contain allergens that could make people very ill. Unfortunately, as it stands now, disposable plastic straws are the best possible option for certain people.

Straw bans — even those that claim to carve out “exceptions” for disabled people — are not the answer to our flood of plastic trash. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do.

Many disabled people advocate for an opt-in program, which is a great solution. Restaurants, cafes and other businesses could decide to stop handing out straws by default — without even checking to see if people need them. Instead, they could keep straws behind the counter for people who ask for them, with a “straws available by request” sign.

Disabled people still support the work of those who are trying to develop alternatives to plastic straws. Just because we’re not there yet with a disability-safe straw option doesn’t mean we’ll never find a solution. That work should involve partnerships — or partnersips? — with disabled people who can offer feedback and suggestions during the early planning stages to increase the probability that a product will be useful for as many people as possible.

Remember the disability community

The bottom line: When you talk about straws or someone brings them up, consider the disability community. Change the conversation from “we should ban straws” to “we should get creative with ways to limit the number of straws used while working together on environmentally friendly alternatives.” Dream of a future where we don’t have plastic straws, but everyone is still able to drink independently whenever they want or need to.

And think about ways to integrate the concerns of the disability community into your activism in other ways; are there other causes you’re working on that might have a disability component, and are you considering that issue in your work? For instance, maybe you’re ardently anti-car. Are you thinking not just about meaningful public transit alternatives, but also the issue of accessibility on public transit. Some car-hating disabled people get stuck driving because they can’t count on being able to get around on trains and buses.

There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to cut back radically on the number of plastic straws we produce — and, perhaps, eventually eliminate them. That’s a cause many disabled people support, but they just want to make sure that everyone is still able to drink independently throughout this process.

And while straws have become a high-profile cause, they’re not the only issue we should have our sights on. We should strive to cut back as much as possible on disposable plastic products in every setting, working on alternatives that do the job without hurting the environment. While we’re at it, eliminating the use of unnecessary plastic in other settings is great goal too.

In the 21st century, we should be able to figure out how to use less — not more, plastic — and reduce the amount that ends up in landfills, recycling centers and incineration facilities.

Photo Credit: Joshua Sorenson/Unsplash

71 comments

Michael Friedmann
Michael Friedmann3 months ago

Thank You for Sharing This !!!

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Marie W
Marie W4 months ago

Thanks for sharing

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Heather B
Heather B5 months ago

Bravo! Only found this article just now - excellent stuff

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Jeanne R
Jeanne R8 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Jeanne R
Jeanne R8 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Jeanne R
Jeanne R8 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Jeanne R
Jeanne R8 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Sarah L
Sarah Lee9 months ago

Thank you for the article. I am not disabled but I do have a grandmother who needs to drink with a straw. We should limit and recycle. Complete ban can be hard for the disabled ones. We will figure it out when push comes to shove. Afterall, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

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Jamie Clemons
Jamie Clemons10 months ago

The solution is to get rid of all plastic and replace it with bioplastic.

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John W
John W10 months ago

Thanks.

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