Concern for the planet, and the oceans particularly, has led to calls for single use plastics to be limited and/or banned. The poster child for banning stuff, at the moment, are plastic straws. Some municipalities are moving ahead with a ban without an alternative in place, creating problems for disabled people who have to use straws to drink. But it’s not the only thing that’s being banned without thinking through the consequences. It’s time for cooler heads, and common sense, to prevail.
The news is filled with the damage we have done to the planet, and nothing gets more coverage than the oceans. From the dying coral reefs to the plastic found in the oceans and on our beaches there is definitely a crisis that we all have a duty to act on. The images are heartbreaking. Sometimes, however, our actions don’t meet the facts or solve the problem.
Let’s look at the problem of plastics in the ocean. According to NOAA, while the idea of an island of floating plastic waste might be create a mental picture that’s easier for us to comprehend, it’s not really like that. It’s more confluences of material where the ocean currents take it. And what do those patches of “peppery soup” contain? Micro-plastics, definitely, but a lot of waste from industrial fishing. When it comes to garbage on beaches, the impact is more directly caused by individual human actions. The Ocean Conservatory’s beach clean up reports that the most found items are cigarettes.
When it comes to a ban, momentum is currently behind the plastic straw – the one use type given in restaurants and fast food places with free abandon. Let’s ban them and we save the oceans! Think of the turtles! And it’s something easy to get rid of! No one needs a straw – everyone can drink without it! And we will all feel good, and feel that we’ve done our bit to save the turtles.
Let’s look at this argument one piece at a time. First, going back to the Ocean Conservatory’s report (which was pretty representative of a number of surveys I found), the number one discarded item was cigarettes. If we want to ban something – why not ban cigarettes? Their only positive use is the pleasure of the individual smoking them, while causing countless cancers for both the smokers and those forced to breathe it in as second hand smoke – and they are polluting our beaches. Number 7 on the list was straws and stirrers – so banning straws doesn’t even target any of the main culprits.
Next the turtles – I’m sure we are all use to this report, and the extremely upsetting image of the turtle with the 4 inch straw wedged in his nose. It really makes the issue real for us all. But how common are these images, where the damage is caused by straws? Take a look at the photo in the NOAA article of the remains from dead albatrosses. The most common item is definitely bottle tops – number 5 on the list. There are many actions that we could take to preserve our wildlife, but banning straws, and straws alone, isn’t enough.
It seems like straws have been chosen because it seems so easy to do – because who needs a straw? I’ve seen all kinds of campaigns, including telling people to “stop sucking”, meaning both ways – literally stop sucking on a straw to drink because figuratively you suck because you’re damaging the planet. Quite simply, I suck. That’s how I drink because my mobility issues mean that I can’t reliably lift a cup to my lips. And I’m definitely not alone. There are many, many, people like me. For a myriad of disability related reasons, there are a large number of people who drink through a straw. At home, I drink through what I call an adult sippy cup – it’s a water bottle with a straw built into it. It goes everywhere with me, but when I eat out, or if I’ve forgotten it, I’d like to be able to look like everyone else and not put my damn sippy cup on the table!
The next part of the argument runs “you can carry XYZ type of straw, because we all have to do our bit to save the planet.” There’s all kind of suggestions for metal and silicone straws, paper, you name it. Now disabled people are forced to defend why each type doesn’t work for them – metal straws don’t work for people who have spasms and seizures, paper goes too soggy too fast and isn’t robust enough, anything reusable needs really careful cleaning and many of us rely on carers who already have lots to do in the time we have them available, and so on, and so on. Ultimately, it’s another piece of kit to remember to take out to access an experience the world of non-disabled people because the experience is built around their needs and not ours.
Then it hit me. We have a solution that currently fits most of the needs of disabled people. It’s robust enough that it survives a fair amount of chomping but soft enough that it doesn’t damage the teeth and the roof of your mouth. It’s disposable so we don’t need to clean it. It’s readily available so we don’t have to take more stuff with us and can just have a spontaneous drink while we are out, and look like everyone else. What is this wondrous solution? It’s the plastic straw!!! Just let us use the damn straws we currently have – or design something that fits both the environmental viewpoint, works for us and fits the price point of restaurants and fast food joints.
But is this really that important – is the ban going to happen? Well, the City of Vancouver already voted to make it a reality by June 2019. They say that they are going to “continue working with” disability advocacy groups. Great. I wonder what solution they’re going to come up with? The plastic straw?
As the straw debacle has surfaced more and more in the last year, I have generally opted for a common sense solution – make straws available on demand. However, yesterday I read this article about banning laptops in classes. It makes a number of points about the experience of disabled people that I hadn’t brought forward into the straw debate. Sure, it says, disabled people can ask for permission to use laptops, but in doing so, they have to be the ones to go the extra mile by completing the required process, and they then stand out from their classmates who want to know why they “deserve” this preferential treatment and so on. And, once again, the evidence did not support that banning laptops for everyone made students any more attentive. (Putting my educator hat on, it has been proven over and over again that the single biggest influence on the quality of learning any classroom is the quality of the teacher.) Hence, when you ban something and make disabled people apply for special dispensation, it becomes something else that disabled people have to demonstrate their need for, and in doing so, makes them stand out as the Other. The deviance from the norm. The ones with the problem.
There are already too many times that disabled people have to defend their need for an alteration – think about those with invisible disabilities who repeatedly have to defend their “blue badge” to park in designated accessible parking spots. Now, disabled people are going to be left not being able to drink while they are out or, at best, have to request a straw, and at some point have to justify their need for a straw to some know-it-all.
Disabled people are generally not found on beaches for hours, soaking in the sun, drinking multiple Big Gulps and littering. We don’t typically litter that much anywhere – because if we had that much manual dexterity we wouldn’t need the straws in the first place! Banning straws before finding a suitable product to replace them with isolates us and makes us have to defend ourselves unnecessarily. And for what benefit? To reduce the 7th most common item on the list of beach pollution?
I hear you ask what I would do, to appease those who want the ban but still have straws for those who need them? Have options available. Allow people to opt out of straws if they want to. If you have to make it so we have to opt in, then don’t wait until the table has been served and then the disabled person has to request one! When you take the drink order, ask how many people want a straw! (And, find some way to bring it other than in the bare hand of the server that has just cleaned tables and plates, as happened to me.) Find new materials to make straws from that meet our needs but biodegrade in a reasonable time frame. Look at new measures for landfills and other waste dumps – these plastic eating bacteria and so on. And, most of all, find a solution before you ban. Put the solution in place, then the ban becomes unnecessary.
Oh, and try banning number 1 to 6 on the list before you get to number 7?