In the past year alone, it’s become commonplace for restaurants not to offer straws or to offer paper straws only. More of us are exchanging plastic straws for metal or bamboo alternatives. Recently, the British government has indicated it would ban the sale of plastic straws and other single-use plastic items like drink stirrers.
The reason for this is understandable: there is way too much plastic waste in the world. Since plastic isn’t biodegradable, this waste is destroying the environment. For this reason, many people want to pursue a ‘zero-waste’ lifestyle where they avoid using anything that needs to be thrown away. This includes using single-use plastics, like straws, drink stirrers, plastic cotton buds, plastic bags and so on.
We certainly should avoid using single-use plastics as much as we possibly can. But banning plastic straws can have some harmful unintended consequences. Plenty of disabled activists and their supporters are pointing out that banning straws could be problematic for many disabled people.
A lot has been said about pre-cut foods, including peeled fruit and vegetables, that are packaged in plastic. While some people point out that this could produce a lot of plastic waste, others point out that if you have certain disabilities – including chronic pain and muscular disorders – pre-cut and peeled foods are life-saving. With plastic straws, it’s a similar situation: people genuinely rely on them to survive.
In a compelling article for Huffington Post, activist Michaela Hollywood explains how straws literally save her life. Without them, she wouldn’t be able to drink. “I live with a rare muscle-wasting condition which renders me unable to scratch my nose without help. I definitely cannot lift a glass of water, a cup of tea, or a bottle of juice to my mouth and drink normally,” she says. “I’m lucky that I’m in the position to spend over £100 on a specifically designed mug with a reusable 36-inch straw to cut down on my throwaway plastic,” she explains. Many people aren’t as lucky, and they have to rely on cheap plastic straws to get by.
What happens to people like Michaela when we ban plastic straws?
When we discuss environmental waste, it’s important to think about who decides what waste is. ‘Waste’ implies that something is unnecessary, and people who are disabled have different needs to those who are not. These needs need to be taken into account when we talk about environmental activism.
Most of us don’t need straws, pre-made food in excessive plastic wrapping, and other single-use items. If those of us who don’t need those plastics reduce our use, it would reduce the impact on the environment considerably. A small number of the population using plastic straws because they need to are not the sole cause of environmental devastation.
There are, however, ways protect the environment without harming disabled people. For example, if we make metal, bamboo, glass and paper straws more accessible, we can reduce the need for plastic straws while helping those who need straws. If those materials aren’t ideal for people who need straws, we need to come up with another solution.
The British government has also indicated that they’ll create further long-term plans with other Commonwealth countries to reduce plastic waste globally. As more governments create plans to reduce plastic waste, it’s imperative that we think about people who have disabilities. Environmentalists need to consider accessibility as well as the environmental impact of certain policies. We should ask ourselves: How can we package ready-to-eat food and peeled produce in a more environmentally-friendly way? How can we make alternatives to single-use plastic cheaper? If someone needs single-use plastic items to survive, can we create alternatives that meet their needs without harming them?
Do we, as a world, use more plastic straws than necessary? Certainly, and we should reduce waste wherever we can. But the policies and laws we create to protect our environment should not leave out people with disabilities, a marginalized group that is under-represented as is.