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The Move to Ban Plastic Straws Is Plagued by Ableism

plastic straws environment disability ablism

The movement to ban plastic straws has been gaining steam for a while now. A number of cities, like Malibu and Seattle, have already banned them, with many more (both in America and around the world) considering votes on the issue. Starbucks just announced that they plan to do away with plastic straws entirely by 2020 and will be using only sippy-lid cups.

A number of viral videos have been bringing a heap of public awareness to the issue, most notably, a horrifying one of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nostril. The video is from 2015, but it’s been making the rounds again recently. It has over 30,000,000 views on YouTube.

For many of us concerned about pollution, fossil fuels, and, of course, the turtles, plastic straws seem like an easy sacrifice. Once you start seeing these videos and hearing the statistics–Americans reportedly use over 500 million plastic straws every day; one restaurant or bar alone can go through 1.5 million straws a year; approximately 71% of seabirds and 30% of turtles have been found with plastic in their stomachs–it feels even easier.

But for many non-disabled people, there is an invisible privilege in having the ability to shun plastic straws. I’ll admit, I didn’t realize this until it was pointed out to me. (But then, I suppose that’s the definition of privilege, isn’t it? It’s those things we don’t know we aren’t seeing.)

For many people with disabilities, the issue of plastic straws isn’t one of convenience, but of necessity. There are alternatives to plastic straws, but none is perfect. Some are far from it. Paper straws are gaining traction, but they can fall apart relatively quickly, and are easy to bite through for those with limited jaw control. Reusable straws are a good option for some, but they can be hard to clean, which is a major obstacle for many disabled people. Reusable metal, glass, and bamboo straws are popular but don’t have the flexibility needed by many and the metal ones can be dangerous when used in hot drinks.

Plus, anyone that’s used reusable straws knows that sometimes you just forget them at home. For non-disabled people, the choice between a reusable straw and no straw is, at worst, a mild inconvenience. For others, it’s not a choice but a necessity. If plastic straws aren’t available, the only option is to not drink anything at all.

To many non-disabled people, it may seem easy to dismiss this as a fixable problem. “Disabled people can just bring their own straws, right?” But the burden of finding a solution to this problem should not be on those with disabilities. And they should definitely not be pitted as the opposition or the obstacle in this quest to help the environment. Robyn Powell, a writer with arthrogryposis (“a physical disability that affects my arms and legs”) wrote in a great piece at HuffPost, “People with disabilities want to save the planet. We also need to be able to drink.”

There are solutions to be found, but disabled people cannot be an afterthought in that process. The restaurant and bar industries, as well as environmental groups looking for solutions, have to consult with disabled communities from the outset. Companies developing new versions of reusable alternatives must talk to those who will benefit most from those products.

As for non-disabled customers wanting to make a difference, we don’t have to wait for legislation or corporate policies to be put into place, to wait for others to make the change for us. We can get over the mild inconvenience of carrying and cleaning reusable straws and get into the habit of adding the words “and no straw” to our drink orders.

We can also recognize that the proposed ban on plastic straws goes deeper than the obvious benefits. Even some of the major forces behind the movement to ban plastic products admit straws are a calculated target. The move to ban other items like plastic bags and water bottles have hit major hurdles, and straws–being such a small thing–are seen as an easier win. Not that it wouldn’t be a big step, but it’s important to take in the whole picture here. Dune Ives, the executive director of Lonely Whale (the group behind Seattle’s straw ban) wrote that plastic straws were viewed as a “playful” product to help tune people into the larger plastic problem, calling it the “‘gateway plastic’ to the larger, more serious plastic pollution conversation.” But clearly, they and other environmental groups were ignoring the very serious conversation already at hand.

Ives told Vox, “Our straw campaign is not really about straws. It’s about pointing out how prevalent single-use plastics are in our lives. Putting up a mirror to hold us accountable. We’ve all been asleep at the wheel.”

And that’s great. Personal accountability is essential. But how personal is that accountability if it needs to come at the expense of those with disabilities?

For an even better perspective, check out these resources from disabled writers explaining the impact the plastic ban has on them:

Robyn Powell at HuffPost

s.e. smith at Bitch

Karin Hitselberger at Washington Post

(image: Pixabay)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) has a lot of opinions about a lot of things. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband Brock Wilbur and too many cats.