Straws – just like single use plastics, the debate just isn’t going away

Over the summer I met with the two MPs that cover the Central Okanagan – Stephen Fuhr, the Liberal MP for Kelowna-Lake Country, and Dan Albas, the Conservative MP for Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola. Amongst other things, I made them aware of what had happened with straws this year, and the impact it was having on disabled people. They both said that banning things wasn’t the way to go, that you need to be aware of the unintended consequences – and they both brought it up without me saying that! Stephen Fuhr offered to make it part of an SO-31, which is where a member gets to make a statement on a topic of their choosing for a minute. he said that this was exactly the sort of awareness topic that he liked to make.

Parliament has just gone back into session. On Wednesday (the 19th) Bill C-81 – the Accessible Canada Act – Canada’s first legislation directly aimed at reducing barriers for disabled people – got presented for its second reading in the House. Yay! On Thursday (the 20th) the environment minister announced that she was putting government contractors on notice that they were banning single use plastics from government contractors, including straws. The opposite of yay. Not yay.

So, I started to write again. First, to my MP’s staff, to ask them to get a message to him, which they did. He’s trying to get hold of the respective ministries himself. Then, I started to write my own email to Minister McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, and Minister Qualtrough, Minister of Accessibility. I post my response here so that anyone who wants to send their own email can pick out anything they like from mine. I suggest you include your own MP as well.

And the email addresses of the two ministers are

Carla Qualtrough – Carla.Qualtrough@parl.gc.ca

Catherine McKenna – Catherine.McKenna@parl.gc.ca

I cannot believe how much I have written about damn straws this year. Even this summer. Tiny little plastic tubes that bring such needed pleasure to me – for those that know me well, I have forsaken Coke Zero for water, flavoured with Crystal Light, Pineapple and Coconut flavour. Yep. A shock, I know. But not as shocking as the plight of disabled people and plastic straws. Who knew when the year began that this would be the thing that would take so much of my time and words. No more, I say. Stop being irrational, people, and let’s have some common sense!

Dear Minister McKenna and Minister Qualtrough

I am writing to express my concern about Minister McKenna’s announcement on Thursday 20th September, 2018, (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/environment-g7-oceans-plastic-waste-catherine-mckenna-1.4831484 ) that the Government of Canada intends to ban all single use plastics from any contract involving the federal government, and that this includes plastic straws. Many disabled people, including myself, rely on plastic straws to be able to drink. While I recognize that we are at a crisis point with single use plastics, and that action needs to be taken, plastic straws are not a vanity use of plastics for many people, but a critical part of their hydration.

On Wednesday 19th September, 2018, Minister Qualtrough brought Bill C-81, the Accessible Canada Act, to the House for its second reading. This act aims to ensure that disabled people are able to live in a barrier-free Canada, and that as part of this, the Government of Canada will ensure that it conducts itself in accordance with this law. Clearly, these two government actions – the announcement banning single use bans and the Accessible Canada Act – are in contradiction to each other, and leads to an issue where the needs of a minority have been lost in an action designed for the majority.

While C-81 is not yet law, it would be hoped that the federal government would act in the spirit of it in the interim. However, Minister McKenna’s announcement means that disabled people who need plastic straws will be discriminated against when accessing federal government events with refreshments. And, where the government goes, others will follow, and plastic straws will be even less available. Hence, the success for one ministry’s policy may be easy to achieve, but will be in contradiction of another ministry’s proposed law.

This year, the trend to ban plastic straws gathered pace as the year went by. Even though the impact of of plastic straws on the environment is much lower than other single use plastics, straws represent an easy target to be the “poster child” to “save the oceans”. Most people can easily give up straws, and are lulled into a false sense that they have “done their bit” for the environment. It’s led to many comments like “no one needs to use a straw” and campaigns like #StrawsSuck.

For disabled people that rely on straws, plastic straws have no replacement currently. They’re robust enough to withstand jaw spasms but flexible enough that they don’t injure teeth and gums. Being single use means that their cleanliness can be relied on. They were so ubiquitous that disabled people knew that they could rely on them being available whenever they went out, both ensuring that they could remain hydrated in an emergency and that they could participate in ad-hoc social invitations to “have a coffee” with friends.

Since the call to ban straws has been so prolific, disabled people have been forced to defend their need to use plastic straws. There have been many op-ed pieces written by disabled people covering the lack of understanding that they have received. Myself, I have constantly been asked to explain why I can’t use paper straws, why I can’t use a reusable straw of some kind that requires cleaning, and so on. Some comments have been from those wanting to understand the situation further while others have bordered on abusive, such as “being disabled doesn’t let you off the same responsibilities that the rest of us have to the planet.” I have written a couple of blog posts on the issue, and give their links below. The second link contains an excellent table, not created by me, that explains why each type of alternative straw doesn’t work for us. However, having to explain exposes a fundamental issue for disabled people – do non-disabled people really think that we haven’t done the research ourselves? That we do not know what is best for us? It demonstrates a lack of respect and understanding for those with lived experience to have to respond to those without to that experience.

https://mssingabout.wordpress.com/2018/05/21/lets-ban-everything-and-damn-the-consequences/

https://mssingabout.wordpress.com/2018/07/14/straws-it-really-means-accessibility-and-respect/

As I mentioned, these issues have been written about by disabled commentators around the globe, including throughout Canada, such as this example from the Globe and Mail https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-for-many-with-disabilities-plastic-straws-are-essential-not/ .

Banning anything is a drastic measure, and may be difficult to reverse. Before it happens, it requires careful study on who is going to be affected and what alternatives are in place. Instead of an outright ban of plastic straws, a common sense approach would be to have straws available on an “as needed” basis. Another approach I have seen suggested would be for a small number of plastic straws to be kept for those who request them, but then this runs into complications of advertising their availability, and also lead to situations of disabled people having to defend their need for a straw. Hence, greatly reducing our use of plastic straws throughout our communities and investing in technology to dispose of plastic straws responsibly, while still making sure that there is access to a plastic straw for those with genuine need is the common sense way to move ahead.

Ultimately, the best outcome for disabled people would be for bills like C-81 to be obsolete, with the lens of the lives of disabled people applied to every law and policy developed by every ministry, without the need for extra legislation. We are a long way from that. In the mean time, we need different branches of the government to work together, to have an awareness of the needs of disabled people, so that contradictions like this one do not happen again.

I cannot believe the number of words I have written and the conversations that I have had this year surrounding the issues related to plastic straws and disabled people, and I am only one of many. With cities like Vancouver already on a timeline to ban straws with no alternative in place, there are certainly going to be many more of these discussions. I look forward to seeing the Government of Canada recognizing that this is not a frivolous issue, and that the government will lead the way with a more nuanced approach that safeguards the needs of disabled people.

I look forward to hearing your response, and a solution to the proposed ban of plastic straws.

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