This Is Why Plastic Straw Bans Are Problematic

"Stop sucking." That's the tongue-in-cheek slogan for the anti-plastic straw movement that's sweeping the nation. More restaurants and businesses are scraping plastic straws. And earlier this month, Seattle became the first major city in the United States to ban plastic straws, as well as utensils. The goal is to cut down on waste that's clogging the world's oceans and harming animals, such as that turtle who was found with a straw stuck up its nose. Proponents of eliminating plastic straws say its necessary for the environment. But other advocates say plastic straw bans ignore people with disabilities — and they have a point.

It has been widely reported that people in the United States use over 500 million drinking straws every day, although that figure has been disputed, according to NPR. But if that number is accurate, it would be enough to fill up more than 46,000 school buses in one year.

That's a lot of waste created by such a small product, which is why plastic straw bans are needed, anti-straw advocate say, according to NPR. But, people with disabilities have argued, those bans remove a vital resource that makes drinking accessible, NPR reported.

Lei Wiley-Mydske, an autistic activist, told NPR, "Disabled people have to find ways to navigate through the world because they know it was not made for us."

Wiley-Mydske continued, according to NPR:

If someone says, 'this does not work for me,' it's because they've tried everything else.

Yet, despite these valid criticisms, people with disabilities have faced considerable pushback on social media. Many people in the anti-straw camp are quick to point out that alternatives to plastic exist — glass, metal, paper, silicone, bamboo. But those alternatives, disabilities advocates say, aren't always suitable, and can actually be hazardous, according to Bitch.

Paper straws, for example, can become soggy, are choking hazards, and lack the rigidity needed for a child or parent with limited muscle control, Bitch reported. Metal straws, on the other hand, may be rigid, but can be unusable if they're not bendable — not to mention potentially cut a person's mouth, according to Bitch. Plus, most of the alternatives are both costly, and not safe for high temperatures.

Another question disability advocates have had to field, according to NPR: What did people with disabilities do before plastic straws were invented?

"They aspirated liquid in their lungs, developed pneumonia and died," Shaun Bickley, co-chair of the Seattle Commission for People with DisAbilities, told NPR.

The history of the flexible plastic straw is deeply rooted in disability. The disposable "Flex-Straw" was first used in hospitals as sanitary, cheap, sturdy, and temperature-resistant adaptive technology to help patients, including children, drink from a cup while lying down, according to Quartz. In fact, the inventor of "Flex-Straw," Joseph B. Friedman, made his first sale to a hospital in 1947. (Friedman created the bendable straw in the 1930s, but he did not invent the drinking straw itself.)

Plastic straws mean independence for some people with disabilities, advocates say. As Bitch pointed out, people who would otherwise need a caregiver's assistance can use a straw to drink on their own. That's especially vital because a caregiver is not always around to help. Having access to a plastic straw can prevent dehydration, which can be fatal, according to Bitch.

This isn't to say that people shouldn't search for alternatives. As Quartz reported, there's an opportunity for corporations to research and develop new and better straws that meet everyone's needs, including people with disabilities. In other words: Inclusive environmentalism.

In the meantime, disability advocates say, businesses can alter their straw policies, rather than eliminating the option all together. Don't hand out plastic straws to every customer, but have them available for people who need them.

It would be a compromise that's empathetic of the lived experiences of people with disabilities. Because saving the environment should come at their expense, especially when measures aren't being taken to hold accountable the people creating the plastic straw waste in first place.