Banning Plastic Straws: It’s Possible to Protect People With Disabilities & the Environment

If you’ve been following the debate around Starbuck’s plastic straw ban, you’ll see a deep tension forming between environmental and disability right’s communities. It’s a shame, because the arguments on each side have quickly been distilled down into wild oversimplifications and lack any clear vision for a future in which everyone is protected.

Here’s what you need to know.

Understanding the needs of people with disabilities

I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t fully understand how or why people with disabilities need plastic straws in particular (as opposed to paper or stainless steel alternatives). And after I learned about their needs, I have adapted my thinking and trust that other well-intentioned environmentalists will do the same. There are after all many people with disabilities who consider themselves environmentalists and it’s not fair to pit these two groups against each other.

Here are the concerns that we need to appreciate and understand:

  • People with Down’s Syndrome and muscular disabilities or paralysis rely on plastic straws, in particular those that bend to safely drink liquids
  • Alternatives to plastic straws such as paper, stainless steel and glass are not viable options for those with disabilities for a variety of reasons some of which include choking hazards
  • Many see outright bans as putting the burden on people with disabilities rather than manufacturers

Addressing plastic waste is a health issue

Advocating for a future that is free from single use plastics is not something that is trivial or fringe, in fact it’s necessary to protect the future health of our people. Even if you don’t care about protecting marine life, water quality or other environmental concerns, plastic pollution IS a people issue.

Plastics break down overtime and end up in a form of microplastics that are ending up in our food (yes, your sushi) and release a host of harmful chemicals into our bodies and drinking water. According to 5 Gyres, the leading plastic pollution organization in the U.S., the chemical components of plastic which have been linked to disrupting hormones and cancer, actually intensify as the plastic breaks down and builds up in marine life.

Plastic pollution is harming marginalized communities everyday

As the Intercept so aptly described in their piece “Critics of Starbucks Straw Ban Are Missing the Point“, this isn’t simply a decision between protecting marine animals over people with disabilities. In fact, plastic pollution, including plastic straws is already harming marginalized communities across the world.

“The plastics that don’t break down, however, tend to swirl in large ocean garbage patches, and eventually wash up on beaches. That becomes particularly problematic when those beaches belong to developing nations that don’t have adequate waste management systems. People wind up burning the plastic trash and inhaling toxic emissions, according to the United Nations.”

The article goes on to say, “The U.N. also points out that ocean plastics facilitate the spread of some tropical diseases, “by providing breeding grounds for mosquitos, which can foster the spread of cholera.” Floating plastic, it said, “can survive for thousands of years and can serve as mini transportation devices for invasive species.” The risks and consequences of invasive species and cholera are relatively low in developed countries. But in developing countries, they can be devastating.”

The solution can protect both people and the environment

  • Restaurants can and should proceed on making measurable and strong commitments to stop using plastic straws and single use plastic.
  • Companies can stop offering straws and move towards less plastic materials (like cups) to drastically save the company money and start to change consumer behavior and expectations.
  • Restaurants can still keep a box of plastic straws on hand for people with disabilities who patronize their store, even if they have instituted a ban. Meeting the needs of a certain population wouldn’t violate the ban, but would still provide access where needed.
  • Individuals and care takers can carry plastic straws with them, as they used to before plastic straws were widely used and included in drinks automatically.
  • The environmental community should learn and respect why the use of plastic straws for disabled people cannot be overlooked.
  • The disability community can work to educate (as they are) the environmental community why paper and stainless steel alternatives aren’t viable.
  • Manufacturers of plastic materials need to create (ASAP) plastic options for the disability community that are actually biodegradable.

We can tackle all of our modern issues with an open mind and solutions oriented thinking! What do you think? Is it possible to have it all? Did you learn something about the issue you didn’t know before?

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