Plastic Straw Bans Face Opposition from Accessibility Advocates

September 4, 2018

A couple of months ago, we took a look at Starbucks’ plan to eliminate its use of plastic straws by 2020. While the coffee chain remains the most high-profile business to ban straws, several cities throughout the country have joined the effort by passing legislation regulating their use. For instance, last month San Francisco passed an ordinance that prohibits restaurants from distributing any single-use plastic utensils or accessories. The cities of Seattle, Malibu, and Vancouver have recently put similar laws into place as well. Entire nations are even looking to reduce their use, with Taiwan planning to eliminate plastic straws by 2025.

The idea behind these bans is to decrease the amount of unnecessary plastic items that could potentially pollute the environment. But as legislators the world over seek to limit the use of straws, accessibility advocates have noted that many disabled people depend on plastic straws as a vital necessity. “People think, ‘It’s so easy to give this up. If I can give it up, why can’t you give it up?’” said Alice Wong, founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project. “It’s something most people don’t notice, but for a disabled person, straws are an accessibility tool.” For example, Wong’s progressive neuromuscular disability requires her to breathe through a ventilator and causes her to lose strength in her arms. Spills from drinks are a constant concern as a result, which can be prevented by using a simple straw.

Supporters of plastic straw regulation say that consumers should switch to alternatives such as compostable straws or reusable metal ones. These aren’t always the best options for disabled citizens, though. While compostable straws tend to be expensive and unreliable, metal straws can be a burden to search for. “Some people like myself don’t have people around us to help us get these things out of our bags,” said Wong. Due to concerns like these, San Francisco’s ordinance requires companies to provide plastic straws for disabled people who request them. Although legislators say this measure is enough, accessibility advocates claim it places too much responsibility on disabled people rather than businesses. Another alternative could be to institute “offer first” policies where servers ask customers if they want a straw rather than giving them out automatically. “Participating restaurants have reported back to me that 50%-80% of customers choose not to take a straw when offered,” said Milo Cress, founder of the Be Straw Free project.

Questions:

  1. Why are plastic straw bans such a concern for people with disabilities?
  2. Do you think companies and communities should regulate the use of plastic straws? Why or why not?

Source: Vivian Ho, “’People Need Them’: the Trouble With the Movement to Ban Plastic Straws,” The Guardian, August 25, 2018. Photo by Horia Varlan.

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