Unless you have been hiding under a fairly large rock, you have seen the internet set ablaze by individuals fighting against the use of single-use plastics, particularly plastic straws. But, banning of the plastic straw will disproportionately affect the disabled community, which relies on this ubiquitous technology to ensure their survival.
Companies like American Airlines, Disney, Bon Appétit and Starbucks are set to phase out plastic straws over the coming years. The entire city of Seattle has banned plastic straws. New York City is likely to follow suit. Florida and Hawaii have bills for statewide bans in the works.
The demonization of the plastic straws likely originated from the viral video of a sea turtle getting a straw pulled from its nostril -- which is nothing short of distressing. While it is fair to say that the U.S. has an overwhelming reliance on single-use plastics, it is not fair to say that banning the plastic straw will do anything to fix the environmental hole we have dug ourselves into.
In an article in the Atlantic, Derek Thompson writes about the invention of the bendy straw. It was invented by Joseph B. Friedman in the 1940s and first marketed to hospitals.
The nurses realized that these “flex straws” would allow for bedridden patients to drink without having to sit up. The bendy straw then found its way into hospitals all over the country to ensure patients were getting adequately hydrated.
These plastic straws are still in use today because they are the best option. Without a straw, many individuals with disabilities would aspirate liquid into their lungs; others would be unable to drink at all.
Unlike biodegradable straws, plastic straws can be used safely with hot liquids, don’t disintegrate after prolonged use, and are flexible. Hard alternative straws, like metal or glass, are unsafe for individuals who are prone to seizures or palate deformities, due to their potential for harm.
They also lack flexibility, which is important for individuals who cannot lift a glass to their own mouth. Reusable straws may cause allergic reactions in some individuals. They are also difficult to sanitize, potentially making individuals sick from ingesting molds.
Why can’t the disabled community bring their own straws? Why can’t single-use straws be available at a cost? A simple answer: this would violate the Americans with Disability Act.
Jessica Kellgren-Fozard, a popular Youtuber who advocates for disabled rights, states in her video, “Banning straws hurts people// The last straw,” that policies like these put, “the burden of accessibility on an already overburdened group of people.”
Alice Wong, who has a neuromuscular disorder, is unable to lift a cup to her mouth.
“This is the experience of living in a world that was never built for you: having to explain and defend yourself while providing infinite amounts of labor at the demand of people who do not recognize their nondisabled privilege,” Wong writes in her Eater.com article.
Both Wong and Kellgren-Fozard are not haters of the environment who wish for environmental destruction by way of plastic straw. But rather, they maintain that the environmental footprint left by single-use plastics can be dealt with in other ways that don’t disproportionately affect the disabled community.
“Look, your environmental activism is worthy and valid and needed, but in this case it has kind of been a little misguided,” Kellegren-Fozard said.
Let’s focus our efforts on real solutions that will lessen our environmental impact while protecting accessibility for the disabled community.
Let’s design reusable straws with a bit more ingenuity, creating safe and useful alternatives to single-use plastic straws. Let’s reduce other single-use plastics like grocery bags, plastic cutlery, and solo cups, which are not essential to an individual’s survival.
Let’s hold large corporations accountable for the amount of plastic they waste in unnecessary packaging. Let’s refine the recycling process so that plastic straws can be recycled. Let’s educate the public. These are the things that will actually save the planet, not just jumping on the straw-hating bandwagon.