Banning Plastic Straws Is Great For The Environment, But Bad For People With Disabilities

photographed by Nicholas Blosie.
On Thursday, the Walt Disney Company announced that it will stop using single-use plastic straws and plastic stirrers at all of its locations by 2019. Earlier this month, Starbucks announced plans to ditch single-use plastic straws at its stores globally by the year 2020.
And with other big companies doing the same, it seems like, all of a sudden, ditching plastic straws has become the great cause of 2018, and that's because they're not great for the environment. Last year, they were the seventh most common piece of rubbish collected on beaches around the world by volunteers with Ocean Conservancy, and they've been referred to as "the world's most wasteful commodity."
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However, many disability rights activists have pointed out that banning plastic straws might actually be detrimental for people with disabilities.
Amy Scherer, a staff attorney at the National Disability Rights Network, says that a plastic straw allows people with disabilities to drink a beverage without having to rely on other people for assistance. While the reasons that might lead someone to need a plastic straw can vary, in most cases, Scherer says, people who have decreased use of their upper bodies find it harder to work with and drink from straws that don't bend at an angle.
"Some concerns [for people with disabilities] may include: limited upper body strength (making it hard to lift a cup), limited range of motion in the arms (making it hard to tilt the cup toward one’s mouth), limited dexterity (making it hard to grasp a cup) or limited motor coordination (making it hard to hold a cup without spilling it)," Scherer says. "These are just a few examples. A person may benefit from a straw if experiencing all of these issues or even just one of them."
Not to mention, unlike paper straws, plastic straws can handle any liquid, hot or cold, without getting soggy, and unlike reusable ones, they don't require cleaning.

The component that was missing as the straw ban discussion picked up steam is the perspective of people with disabilities.

Amy Scherer, staff attorney at the National Disability Rights Network
In a piece for Greenpeace, Jamie Szymkowiak, co-founder of One in Five, a Scottish disability rights organisation, wrote that "disabled people can take longer to drink; therefore, a soggy paper straw increases the risk of choking."
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"Most paper and silicone alternatives are not flexible, and this is an important feature for people with mobility related impairments," he continued. "Metal, glass, and bamboo straws present obvious dangers for people who have difficulty controlling their bite, as well as those with neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s."
But pushing back against a plastic straw ban isn't to say that we shouldn't be taking steps to take better care of the planet. Rather, Scherer says, we should be finding solutions that are both environmentally-friendly and that take into consideration the needs of people with disabilities. For example, she says, instead of banning plastic straws completely, we can limit how much we use them, and still make them available to people who request them — something that food service company Aramark is doing.
"The component that was missing – at least in most cases – as the straw ban discussion picked up steam is the perspective of people with disabilities," Scherer says. "The plastic straw ban looks like such an excellent idea on paper, but decisions were seemingly made before potentially negative consequences were considered. It would have been more helpful to have the disability perspective involved and represented in the discussion from the start."
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