Straw Bans Eco-Shame Those Who Need Them

People with disabilities who require straws to drink are pushing back against increasingly draconian, yet well-meaning, bans that seek to cut down on pollution.

“At first, I figured it had to be a joke,” says Brook McCall, a high quad who is the grassroots advocacy manager for United Spinal Association, about recent straw bans. “I’m from San Luis Obispo, a small city in California that prides itself on being ahead of the game on some of these issues. We were the first that outlawed smoking back when people laughed about it, and we’ve banned plastic bags and now charge 10 cents for paper. Locals who don’t have disabilities were talking about fines for servers or jail time for those who hand out straws, which sounds ridiculous, as if they’re serving alcohol to a minor. I thought, calm down, it’s a straw, but that buzz in the media is scary for me because I don’t want fearful restaurants to eliminate something I need as a customer.”

Straws are now available in San Luis Obispo restaurants by request-only, and another California city, Santa Barbara, is considering a fine of $1,000 and up to six months jail time for servers who provide restaurant patrons with plastic, single-use straws. Seattle has a ban, as do a sprinkling of Florida cities such as Fort Myers and Miami Beach. New York City is considering a ban.

Restaurants are joining in, most famously Starbucks, which narrowly escaped the optics of disabled patrons protesting the restriction of single-use plastic straws by releasing an unclear statement that straws will be available, but not specifying what material they’ll be made of. Activists insist straws must be plastic and flexible, so Starbucks may not be out of hot water quite yet.

Why Fix What Works?

Especially since good replacements do not yet exist, straw bans are an example of an accessibility accommodation that works beautifully but is now in danger of being taken away.

To be universally usable, straws must be flexible so they can bend to where a person’s mouth is. Paper and other compostables may disintegrate or melt when used with hot liquids like coffee or soup. Metal or glass straws may cause injuries if a person with a disability like cerebral palsy bites down too hard. Reusable straws may be hard to keep clean throughout a long day of being out-and-about, and bringing your own back-up straws — while something everyone who needs them does or should do anyway — means if you run out or forget to stock up, you are out of luck.

As Disability Visibility Project’s Alice Wong, who has spinal muscular atrophy, notes in her essay, “The Last Straw” [], “Plastic straws are ubiquitous, whether we like it or not. Once you have something that provides access, it is difficult and harmful to take it away from a marginalized community that depends on it. I live in a world that was never built for me, and every little bit of access is treasured and hard-won. Bans on plastic straws are regressive, not progressive.”

Seattle’s ban, notably, exempts people with disabilities who require straws. But if that ban is successful, it would become increasingly hard to find an establishment that keeps some on hand in case a customer who needs one wanders in. Some activists, joking-not-joking, muse they can see the day when single-use plastic straws are only available with a doctor’s prescription and for a high price out of a medical catalog.

Meanwhile, today, some who ask for drinks with straws in a locality where that is still legal report they are being eco-shamed. “I live in Portland now, where people pride themselves on being forward thinking. When I’ve asked for a straw, though, I’ve been chastised and told management doesn’t really want to pass them out. I have to point out that I actually need the straw to drink,” says McCall. “They’re trying to be as environmentally friendly as possible but forgetting about people’s needs and customer service. Recently I requested a straw and was told, ‘We’ll give you this one, but in the future, you could limit your usage.’ Seriously, I’m a C4 quad buying an overpriced drink in a place with four milk alternatives. I’m not the one who deserves a lecture on social consciousness. Not allowing me a straw is like serving a plate of pasta without a fork. It doesn’t make sense.”

Straws Aren’t Even the Biggest Problem

Perhaps if banning plastic straws would significantly cut down on our planet’s undeniable waste problem, these bans and public chidings would be easier to take. But there are undeniably other items that could be banned first that would have a greater impact and not infringe upon the rights of people who use straws for their disabilities to take a drink.

In the article “What Plastic Item Would You Love to Ban?” 15 ocean experts who are also TED speakers named microfibers like those found in yoga pants; straps used in shipping; grocery and other plastic bags; all single-use items associated in take-out and restaurant dining (of which straws are only a part); microbeads found in products like exfoliants and Styrofoam; and all petroleum-based plastics.

“This means inventing bioplastics and other materials that don’t persist for decades or degrade into harmful substances,” said TED Talker David Gruber about that last point [“Glow in the Dark Sharks, and Other Stunning Sea Creatures”]. “I’ve seen plastics of all kinds polluting the most remote waters and beaches in the world. We need a ‘Manhattan Project’ for plastics: an initiative that drives people to invent similar materials that aren’t harmful to life in the ocean. If we’re smart enough as a species to put a lander on Mars, why can’t we invent good replacements for plastic?”

Which underlines a main problem with straw bans. Since no good replacement for plastics is on the table, these bans, while feel-good to many who care about the environment, can’t accomplish the long-term change their proponents hope they will.

Another TED Talker, Chris Jordan [“Turning Powerful Stats Into Art”], said it like this: “I see the whole public conversation around plastic straws as a shot of morphine into our collective veins to avoid facing what actually matters.” He goes on to list an alarming number of polluting items, from pleasure boats to highways, and notes how overfishing is decimating ocean creatures. “So, my proposed ban is: this conversation. Let’s quit pretending that plastic straws even make the list of the top 1,000 problems we should be discussing, and perhaps we can begin to summon the courage to take a deeper look at our culture — and ourselves,” he concludes.

These ocean experts highlight environmentally sound reasons why the disability activists pushing back on straw bans deserve our community’s full and complete support. Banning plastic straws probably won’t save a single whale, but will lead to the discomfort and possible dehydration of people we interact with every day. Yes, the earth needs to be saved. But solutions that feel good for some, yet water down the freedom of others, are not solutions. They’re distractions.