Sorry Green Friends, Your Plastic Straw Ban is Misguided

Well-meaning activists are killing plastic straws. Disabled folks are not pleased.

This week, Starbucks announced it would eliminate plastic straws by 2020 to reduce ocean pollution from plastic. Meanwhile, cities including Seattle and New York City are moving to ban plastic straws from restaurants entirely.

With our oceans increasingly cluttered by plastic waste, it seems at first blush like a sensible way to reduce waste. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple.

Disability advocates oppose the bans, arguing that people with conditions including Parkinson’s and tourettes rely on the straws. Many disabled people also resent the need to ask for a medical exemption to get a straw, which they view as yet another reminder of their “special needs” status.

Kathryn Carroll, a policy analyst for the Center for Disability Rights, says they are concerned about bans like New York City’s and Seattle’s because it affects equal access to restaurants, ostracizing an already ostracized group.

To its credit, Starbucks has said it will work with disability groups going forward but has made no more specific plans.

Still, going straw-free isn’t as environmentally friendly as it may seem. To make iced coffee drinks consumable without removing the lid, Starbucks is putting plastic sippy cup lids on their cups. They’re just replacing plastic straws with plastic lids bigger than the lids they use now. Additionally, as Vox points out, eliminating straws will only make a small dent in ocean pollution.

Individual actions also won’t solve plastic pollution, writes Matt Wilkins, postdoc at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Science Outreach. That we can save the Earth one plastic bottle or straw at a time is a lie designed by plastic manufacturers to shift responsibility for choking sea turtles onto individual consumers. Wilkins compares the problem of plastic pollution to a falling skyscraper and individual actions are like hammering a nail to keep the building up.

Green activists are focused on eliminating straws mostly as a gateway to bigger actions because they consider it an unnecessary utensil—most people can simply bring the cup directly to their mouth when they drink. However, disability activists argue it’s far from unnecessary for many and they feel silenced in the conversation.

There are greener alternatives to plastic straws, from biodegradable bamboo and corn to metal. But for people who need to use straws for everything they consume, none of these options work as well as a bendable plastic straw, which was created for hospital patients and people with disabilities.

In a testimony for the New York City Council, disability activist Sharon Shapiro-Lacks explained that plastic straws help protect her dignity in public. Describing a visit to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens Cafe, she said they did not carry straws and she had to have her husband tip the cup into her mouth. “This compromises my privacy and my dignity,” she said.

New York’s straw ban bill said that restaurants could offer straws as a medical exemption to disabled customers. But disability activists like Penny Pepper view the medical exemption as just another hassle disabled people would be forced to face. Writing in in The Guardian “Let me tell you, disabled people are fed up with being ‘fucking special’ (the title of a poem of mine) and, if the rumors are true, will no doubt be forced to go through more repulsive assessments to qualify for a straw.”

Take it from me, an unabashed straw lover: there’s no substitute for a plastic straw. I’m a very able-bodied person and I use straws for practically every drink. I like them to keep my teeth white and so I don’t get bits of smoothie stuck in my mouth. But I can’t even begin with paper straws. They quickly disintegrate in hot liquids and slowly break apart in cold ones. Inexplicably, silicon straws tend to be twice as wide as regular straws, making it near impossible for me to purse my lips around them to create sufficient suction.

Metal straws can be used over and over and some are bent, which is convenient. But since they don’t work with hot liquids (boiling water heats up metal) and are a hazard for people with conditions like epilepsy and Tourette’s, they’re not the solution. And, some advocates have pointed out, plenty of poor people can’t necessarily afford metal straws. I got mine at the always-expensive Whole Foods, so point taken.