by Barbara Steltz Wittman
Recently, there has been a lot of attention on the idea that plastic straws are bad for the environment and they should be banned. Disability advocates have spoken up over and over to explain why this is such a dangerous and insulting concept, however, like many other things that disabled people have to fight to have access to, the general public has tended to ignore, talk over, or believe that they know better than the people whose lives are most impacted.. Below we share some of the history of plastic straws and the pros and cons to the various kinds of straws that have been proposed as alternates.
There are many disabilities that make it difficult or completely impossible to bring a drink to your lips, or even if possible, to do so safely. Disabilities that affect muscle strength or movement could make drinking from a basic cup completely impossible. Straws make drinking possible for these people. Many don’t know the history that the bendy straw was invented to help an inventor’s young daughter drink her milkshake. It was soon embraced by hospitals when they realized their supine patients could successfully drink and take their medicines. Though some people only need the flexible straw during short term hospital stays, many people require them to drink every day. Flexible straws are the most useful for people with tremors, spastic muscles or poor motor coordination. Having plastic straws available where beverages are served is something that has become an expected accommodation that one doesn’t need to prepare for, one that allows many people to participate in the social aspects of their community.
Reusable straws like metal, glass, silicone and acrylic are difficult to wash especially for many disabled people who have a disability that affects their motor skills or movement. Though the risk from bacterial growth in an improperly cleaned straw is a risk for everyone, for those who may already have compromised immune systems it is far more dangerous. Rigid straws such as metal, glass and acrylic also pose an injury risk to those with tremors or spastic muscles. Metal straws conduct heat and cold which can cause burns. All reusable straws are costly. Being disabled already is not cheap.
Compostable Plastic Straws
Compostable plastic straws feel like plastic, but are advertised to be compostable. Many compostable straws use corn in the process which presents an allergy risk to those with a corn allergy. Most of the compostable straws we’ve seen do not contain any warning or ingredient listings.
While they seem to behave like traditional plastic straws, there’s not much research to indicate if they would be a suitable alternative to eliminate the risks other alternate straws pose. Most people won’t notice any difference in how these straws look, feel and function.
How do compostable straws break down in reality – the speed at which they break down depends on where they break down. Most compostable straws are made of bioplastics.
In a landfill, they would break down as slowly as a plastic straw or a biodegradable straw because oxygen is not readily available.
In a special commercial composting system, which has the right amount of oxygen, heat, carbon, water, microorganisms and nitrogen, they would break down much quicker. Few communities use composting systems that would meet these needs.
If the compostable system is an anaerobic/methane (biogas) digester, these straws may be rejected.
Straws and other small items might be rejected from these systems due to their size – like traditional plastic straws and other small items, they might cause a jam. More research needs to be done here.
Biodegradable Plant Based Straws
Biodegradable straws are made from a variety of materials such as those made from pasta, straw, rice or paper.
Paper, pasta, rice and similarly soft straws are choking hazards because they get soggy once they come in contact with liquid. Many who need straws are likely to have more mouth activity on the straw, causing it to break down even quicker. They hold up even worse in hot drinks because they break down faster than many disabled people can use them.
Plant based straws pose allergy risks as they are made from common allergens including wheat, corn even avocado.
Assuming that restaurants and other establishments are banning straws completely, you have to make sure you bring the correct amount of these straws with you while you are out and about. What if you lose them or forgot to pack them? They all are costly and may cause an allergic reaction to the user.
Biodegradable straws break down over some undefined period of time and should not go into a composting system. These straws should go in the trash.
Though paper straws may seem recyclable, most facilities will not accept paper (or any item) contaminated with food, so straws used with anything other than water may not be recycled. They also may fall into the category of “small paper items” that are often not accepted for recycling because they can jam up the machines.
Plastic straws are safe for those who need straws to drink, they are safe in hot drinks, do not need to be washed (unless you want to) and some are positionable!
Plastic straws and other small items such as forks might be rejected from recycling systems due to their size – they might cause a jam. Eight million tons of plastic float in our oceans. Straws are 0.025% of that. For comparison, discarded fishing equipment makes up 46% of ocean plastics and 97% of marine life plastic entanglement.
Plastic straws cannot be recycled in a commingled recycling system, but they could be collected separately, washed in a net bag and used for craft projects.
Banning straws may feel like a win, but this response to the emotions of seeing a straw stuck in a sea turtle’s nose and figures that have been reported as fact, but actually are impossible to verify numbers based on a number that a 9 year old student estimated almost a decade ago do very little to address the problem they intend to address and create problems for small children and disabled people who need plastic straws to safely drink and participate in community.
Banning plastic straws in public spaces adds more stigma to those with disabilities and puts their lives at risk. The need to fight back, or advocate against plastic straw bans also eats away at time and energy disabled people and those who advocate for them don’t have, as so much about this community already takes more time, costs more, and is more stressful because of laws and lack of accessibility.
Where straws are banned, those with disabilities that require the use of a plastic straw will then have to remember to carry their own. The stigma being generated for using plastic straws will fall unequally on those with disabilities as the general public will not always understand. Straws will be one more thing they have to remember to carry (amongst many other supplies). A city or town a disabled person is visiting may ban straws and they will not know this. This puts undue hardship and stress of being caught off guard and not allowing them to participate in the community like everyone else.
If businesses do make them available upon request, it will be just another ACCOMMODATION that requires the individual to publicly identify themselves and probably wait for the attention of the staff who might or might not understand or may not even know where the straws are kept. Disclosing a disability can be met with judgement, discrimination, harassment and possibly violence because the business owner/employees might not understand that the person doesn’t have to prove their disability.
Banning straws may allow companies, politicians, and individuals to feel that they have done their part for the environment but there are far more effective and wider reaching ways to minimize the harm that plastics put on the environment and wildlife, while still respecting the need for individuals to have access to plastic drinking straws wherever beverages are served.
For example, each year:
380 billion plastic bags get used in the US and less than 5% are recycled, according to the EPA.
4.5 trillion cigarettes are thrown away.
Fishing nets and supplies make up the largest chunk of plastic debris in the ocean.
Companies are already attempting to ban straws by providing paper straws wrapped in … plastic (Starbucks). Similarly, new lids designed to be strawless (but don’t address many of the issues that make them the best and safest solution for those discussed above) actually use MORE plastic. There needs to be pragmatic considerations to allow straws to be available to the disabled while minimizing any negative effects on the environment. It shouldn’t be a knee-jerk reaction to seeing a turtle with a straw up its nose.
*bibliography available @ rebrand.ly/StrawSources