Environmental concerns and the rights of people with disabilities are topics that are usually not mentioned in the same sentence. However, some disability rights advocates are speaking out against an emerging trend of phasing out the use of plastic straws with drink orders in restaurants and other similar establishments. This anti-straw movement is gaining popularity in the United States due to concerns over single-use plastics.

For example, in 2014 Americans tossed out more than 33 million tons of plastic, the vast majority of which was not recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. One 2014 study estimated there were 270,000 metric tons — and more than 5 trillion particles — of plastic in the world’s oceans. Straws and stirrers make up more than 7 percent of plastic products found in the environment, according to Better Alternatives Now, or BAN 2.0, an analysis done by several pollution research groups.

It makes sense that environmentalist would start with straws since they are known as the gateway plastic. But, if plastic straws disappear from restaurants, people who have conditions like Multiple sclerosis (MS) or quadriplegia could suffer. For them, plastic straws are essential for drinking since it allows them to control the flow of liquid. Without access to bendable, durable plastic straws, the simple act of taking a drink becomes more challenging and potentially dangerous.

The Use of Plastic Straws in Healthcare:

The bendable plastic straw was originally used as an adaptive technology for patients in U.S. hospitals. By the late 1940s, inventor Joseph B. Friedman sold the first disposable “Flex-Straw” or “personalized drinking tube” as a tool to help reclined patients drink from a cup. These straws were sanitary, cheap, sturdy, temperature-resistant and suited for children and epilepsy patients. They were an excellent solution for people who had trouble tipping a cup or glass and controlling the amount of fluid consumed. In recent decades, alternatives to plastic straws have appeared. Straws are now made from paper, biodegradable plastics and even reusable straws made from metal or silicone.

Why Not Use Non-Plastic Straws:

Popular alternatives for plastic straws include options made from biodegradable paper and metal, the latter of which are typically reusable once cleaned. But those options may not suit people with certain disabilities. For instance, some disabled people can take a longer time to drink, leading paper straws to get soggy or even disintegrate, potentially increasing the risk of choking. Paper straws and similar biodegradable options often fall apart too quickly or are easy for people with limited jaw control to bite through.

Silicone straws are sturdy, but often not flexible enough, making them more difficult to use for people who have a mobility-related impairment. Sturdy and flexible are two of the most important features for people with mobility challenges. Additional problems arise due to the fact that reusable metal or silicone straws need to be washed. A task that not all people with disabilities can do easily perform. Metal straws tend to conduct heat and cold in addition to being hard and inflexible. All of these features can impose a safety risk for people with disabilities.

Disability rights advocates argue that the campaign against plastic straws is being waged without adequate input from customers who have physical disabilities. They feel that people with disabilities need to be part of the larger conversation when it comes to implementing laws and legislation that will directly impact their quality of life.

Companies such as McDonald’s, Marriott and Bacardi have already committed to reducing the use of straws as a step toward environmental sustainability. Governments have also been taking up the initiative. Seattle passed a ban on plastic straws in 2018, and other major U.S. cities including Portland, San Francisco and New York City have taken steps to limit their use. Additional proposals to ban the use of plastic straws have also been introduced in both California and Hawaii.

Some Positive Changes:

Some companies realize that there is a conversation about this topic happening across the United States. In response to criticism, Starbucks released a statement stating that they will continue to offer straws for those who request them. Yet, the company is still committed to eliminating the use of all plastic straws by 2020. Seattle Public Utilities stated that the city’s new plastic straw ban includes a plastic straw waiver. This waiver allows restaurants to give disposable, flexible plastic straws to customers who need them for physical or medical reasons. However, is not clear as to how many food establishments and restaurant chains are aware of this waiver.

Advocates for disability rights know that just because an exemption is written into law, does not always mean that all businesses will comply with the law. There are still lawsuits generated from the American With Disabilities Act (ADA) regarding wheelchair ramps, hallway/bathroom widths and Braille signs.

As a population, people with disabilities are familiar with not having their voices heard by lawmakers as well as society at-large. They understand that there is a larger environmental concern and it is clear that the use of single-use plastic straws has a negative impact on the environment. Starbucks is only reacting to customer concerns, but as a company with a global presence; they should pay attention to how corporate policies impact the needs of all of their customers.

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Plastic Straw Ban, Disability Rights