Why Straw Bans Are About More Than Straws

When I originally published this post back in July of 2018, there was debate about efforts by some companies (Starbucks, McDonald’s) and cities (San Francisco, Seattle) to ban the usage of plastic straws within their entities. Then, more recently, I heard that the United Kingdom will ban straws, among other plastics, starting in April 2020. Many environmentalists think it’s important to make sure that we reduce plastic waste and therefore reduce our usage of plastic straws, while many disability activists argue that there are currently no feasible alternatives to a single-use plastic straw.[1]

Personally, I think a ban must wait until there are feasible alternatives for people of all levels of ability. But I think this discussion on straws needs to be about more than straws.

Namely, we need to discuss our society’s lack of willingness to listen to the physically disabled, and the proposed straw ban is just the latest example of this.

Consider this—in spite of the fact that many disability activists (including many who have the lived experience of being disabled) have been raising concerns about such bans, the entities that planned to ban plastic straws are still going ahead. If we, as a society, listened to the disabled, wouldn’t we at least hear their arguments? Wouldn’t we at least consider for a second why they are saying what they’re saying? These, of course, are rhetorical questions, because in spite of many activists saying that other alternatives to plastic straws do not work, entities are still going ahead with their plans to ban usage of the single-use plastic straw.

Sadly, this pattern of not listening to the disabled goes well beyond straws. Here are a few of the many examples of parts of our society not listening to the disabled:

  1. Airline seats continue to shrink. In spite of many activists saying that airline seats have shrunk to the point that the disabled cannot get out safely in the event of an emergency, there are still successful attempts to shrink airline seats even further yet.
  2. We continue to view people with disabilities as inspirations. There have been oh so many times when people with disabilities have told others—in writing, in-person, through YouTube and through many other means—to stop viewing them as inspirations for just doing tasks in daily life that the rest of us perform.[2] If our society listened to them, then we would stop viewing these individuals as inspirations. But alas, many of us don’t listen.
  3. There are attempts to dilute the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Disability activists have, on many occasions, warned against any legislation that undermines the ADA, yet amazingly such legislation to weaken the ADA passed the House of Representatives earlier this year. If we listened to people with disabilities, such a bill would be in the garbage can, not passed in the House.

Not listening to people with disabilities is very much a pattern of our society. This pattern did not start with the straw issue, and I fear that it will not end with the straw issue. However, it is about time that we change and actually start listening to people with disabilities.

Please note that I will not publish a post on Tuesday, May 28, 2019.


[1] Paper straws apparently disintegrate with hot drinks while metal straws are both inflexible and a safety risk because of how they conduct heat and cold. This NPR piece covers the issues with metal and paper straws much more thoroughly than I do in my post: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/07/11/627773979/why-people-with-disabilities-want-bans-on-plastic-straws-to-be-more-flexible.

[2] If you would like a more detailed explanation of why it’s a problem to just view people with disabilities as inspirations, I highly recommend reading this article from Everyday Feminism: https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/04/stop-calling-disabled-people-inspirational/.

Eight drinking straws in rainbow colors
I can’t think of anything more appropriate for a post involving straws than a picture of straws. By Horia Varlan from Bucharest, Romania (Eight drinking straws in rainbow colors) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Earth Day 2018: A Call to Action

Next Sunday is Earth Day. So in advance, I wish everyone a happy Earth Day!

However, I don’t feel that it’s enough to just wish ourselves and others a good Earth Day. We need to take action too.

The action I propose for this year is that all of us think about the ways in which we use too much plastic and don’t put plastic where we should.[1]

Indeed, when we go to fast food restaurants, we’re given plastic tops for our drinks and straws made of plastic. We go to grocery stores and buy plastic water bottles. We throw our plastics away on the street or in the regular trash, often because that is the most convenient and expedient thing to do. We have plastic bags at grocery stores, and then throw them away in the regular trash once we use them for our one purpose (carrying groceries). So much of our food uses plastic wrapping, and we use plastic bags to help seal and protect food.

Granted, some of the onus is on companies and the government. Companies that use plastic in its products can have a hand too in at least making sure that their products are recyclable, so that the plastic we use causes as little harm to the environment as possible. Government can also have refuse-disposal cans not only for trash, but for paper and plastic as well.[2]

But some of the responsibility is in the hands of us as individuals. I don’t pretend to be holier-than-thou, as I have used and continue to use more plastic than I’d like. However, just because I struggle with some or all of these things doesn’t mean that I (and others) shouldn’t try to do better. We should all try to do better, because I highly doubt that many of us are as good as we could be. We can at least cut plastic out of our lives when plastic is not necessary; for example, when we’re at sit-down restaurants, we don’t need straws and can politely ask not to be given straws. We can also use tap water (with maybe a filter) instead of plastic water bottles. And, if you are a decision-maker in a company or in government, you can advocate for measures that could increase the recycling of plastic or cut down on plastic usage.

I, for one, commit to trying to be better about refusing to use plastic straws, as well as recycling my plastic when I am out in public. I hope that others use the upcoming Earth Day to make a commitment to cut down on plastic usage and recycle the plastic we use.


[1] This is in line with the Earth Day Network’s focus on plastic this year.

[2] In every municipality I’ve been in, including New York City, they make the baffling decision not to do this everywhere.