Plastic straws have become a focal point of the wave of anti-plastic feeling that’s sweeping across the world.
Taiwan banned plastic straws in February; Seattle has become the first US city to enact a ban on them earlier in July; Malibu, in California, has done it too; and Vancouver became the first Canadian city to approve a ban in May, among other cities around the world.
And retailers and restaurants are also voluntarily getting on board with the trend. Starbucks announced this month that it will ban straws, eliminating 1 billion from the global supply chain every year. McDonald’s, too, has announced straw bans in the UK and Australia.
Generally, when a store or brand announces new action against plastic straws, it’s met with praise, as a result of the growing global concern about plastic waste in the oceans.
Every day in the US alone, around 500 million straws are used and thrown away. That’s part of the around 8 million tonnes of plastic that enter the oceans each year — the equivalent of emptying a rubbish truck of plastic into the ocean every minute.
But there is a very important consideration that the global conversation on plastic straws isn’t yet taking into account.
Plastic straws can be absolutely vital for some people living with a disability — and activists and campaigners are calling on legislators and individual companies and corporations to consult with people with disabilities before rolling out a total ban on straws.
According to Jamie Szymkowiak, co-founder of One in Five, a Scottish disability rights organisation, plastic straws have many advantages. They’re cheap, flexible, they can be used for drinking cold as well as hot drinks, and they’re readily available.
“For some disabled people these attributes are vital for independent living,” he wrote, in a blogpost for Greenpeace.
“It’s important to note that the umbrella of ‘disability’ includes people with different needs and impairments, and that it’s the universal accessibility of the plastic straw that makes so many disabled people anxious about an outright ban,” he continued.
The problem, according to disability rights activists, is that more eco-friendly alternatives such as paper and glass straws lack the flexibility and durability of plastic straws.
📣 If you’re a disabled person and want to co-sign an open letter we’re writing regarding plastic straws, please DM us. Note, your name may be shared as it will be an open letter. #SaveOurStrawspic.twitter.com/O4o86KUmkI— One in Five (@oneinfivescot) July 19, 2018
Paper straws, for example, get soft too quickly, and can’t cope with hot liquids; most paper and silicone alternatives aren’t flexible; metal straws can be too hard, and if they’re not bendy they can be useless; and glass straws can shatter.
Metal, glass, and bamboo straws also “present obvious dangers for people who have difficulty controlling their bite, as well as those with neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s,” Szymkowiak added.
The concern, according to Kathryn Carroll, a policy analyst with the Centre for Disability Rights, is that “when blanket policies like these are put in place, they don’t take into account the individual needs of people with disabilities.”
“There’s hasn’t been any outreach to the disability community to make sure that their rights are protected and that they weren’t discriminated against, even if it was unintentional in the first place,” Carroll told Earther.
For writer and disability rights activist Penny Pepper, she doesn’t want to have to put her own care above the environment.
“But it seems no one is considering the impact of future legislative changes on our wellbeing,” she wrote, in an opinion piece for the Guardianin March that she supported green initiatives, but people with disabilities could be “seriously disadvantaged if we can’t find a proper alternative.”
“I’ve got lots of friends who have to have a straw to drink,” she added. “It could be tens of thousands of people affected by this in a very negative way.”
One suggested solution could be for restaurants, pubs, and other outlets to keep straws behind the bar. But it’s not ideal.
“It’s an additional burden on people with disabilities,” said Carroll. “I worry that in practice [restaurants] may not provide the access to straws that people need.”
Instead, campaigners are laying down the gauntlet for manufacturers to produce an environmentally friendly, flexible, non-plastic straw — that’s suitable for both hot and cold drinks.
According to Szymkowiak, “we must all work together to demand an environmentally friendly solution that meets all our needs, including those of disabled people.”