If you have ever bought drinks from fast food restaurants like McDonald’s or Tim Horton’s, you will typically use a plastic straw to sip your drink. Recently, McDonald’s has proposed to stop using plastic straws by the end of 2021 (1), as well as Tim Horton’s, and move forward with recyclable straws; or Starbucks, where their vibrant green straws have been replaced with a new lid design (2). Now that sounds like an environmentally friendly choice for the planet and its people, but what does that mean for people with disabilities?
Straws, straws, straws
There is so much plastic waste that gets thrown in our garbage cans and into the dumpsters of the Waste Management company, or worse, plastic that gets washed into the ocean waters. Canada ships about 12% of its plastic waste outside of North America where it gets processed for “recycling”, but often results in adding pollution to other countries like Southeast Asia (3). While Canada ships plastic waste, plastic traces can enter the environment, taking years to biodegrade and lots of effort to clean up with the help of volunteers around the world. Most of this plastic waste ends up in the ocean, where the waves and wind break the plastic down into smaller pieces called microplastics (4).
An example of where these microplastics came from are single-use plastics. Single-use plastics such as straws, cotton buds, or wrappers are usually found floating on the ocean waters (4). But the focus for today will be on plastic straws.
Are Plastic Straws Good or Evil?
Plastic straws can be seen as good and bad in the eyes of different people. For those who believe they are bad, they would agree that plastic straw bans are meant to be a proactive step in reducing plastic waste that enters the environment (2). However, individuals who have physical disabilities, especially those with mobility related impairments, may disagree, and will be negatively affected by this ban.
For these individuals with temporary or permanent physical conditions that affect their mobility, plastic straws are essential in their daily lifestyle (7). It helps them take on the physical activities that non-disabled people brush off as regular occurrences in their lives. For example, for those with Parkinson’s, it is difficult to control their movement. These people may find drinking from a cup too difficult because of tremors that can cause imbalance. If all of a sudden plastic straws were to be removed without any fair warning, it could cause a lot of panic and distress; these daily activities would take even longer to complete, resulting in anxious thoughts to find replacements that would fit their needs.
Furthermore, for disabled people, plastic straws are the best option for drinking fluids, whether it be water, coffee, or food in liquid forms. Other alternatives such as paper straws are not efficient since a soggy paper straw increases the risk of choking. Alternatives like metal, glass, and bamboo straws are dangerous for people who have difficulty controlling their bite or cannot react well to hot or cold temperatures (8).
So are there other alternatives? A common argument from non-disabled people is to have disabled people bring their own straws (8). Having a plastic reusable straw on hand may make a good point; however, this causes hygiene problems. From your perspective, if you had to carry a plastic straw with you wherever you went, would it be hygienic and safe to use? Most importantly, as a non-disabled person, would this be convenient whenever you feel thirsty or would you prefer to drink from a water bottle instead?
In my perspective, I thought that maybe compostable straws could be an alternative to reduce plastic waste for all individuals. After some research, I found that plant fiber, starches like corn, or even pasta are used to make compostable straws (9). This idea had potential since there are businesses out there that do manufacture or adopt compostable straws. However, this idea was not a good solution, because compostable straws could result in deadly allergic reactions that could harm disabled people (10).
The ban on plastic straws has resulted in serious consequences for individuals with disabilities. The ban makes disabled peoples’ daily lifestyle much more difficult because they have been stripped of an important item that assists with mobility. Although it is agreeable that the use of plastic straws should be significantly reduced, if not banned, it is important to acknowledge that there are people with disabilities who need plastic straws to function in life.
It is important that we are self-aware of how much daily waste we produce, and plastic is a huge contributor. For most of us, we can find alternatives to plastic straws, but for individuals who have physical disabilities, there is no alternative from the given choices they have.
Remember, sustainability is not just about protecting the environment, it is also about reducing inequalities and finding sustainable solutions to accommodate those who have experienced these inequalities.
Written by Kathleen Tse