Skipping the Straw: The Intersection of Sustainability and Accessibility

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October 30, 2018

The city of Seattle’s July 1st ordinance, closely followed by Starbucks’ July 9th announcement that the company will eliminate their use of plastic straws globally by 2020, have prompted a national discussion around the intersection of sustainability and accessibility. While these recent policy decisions are at the forefront of a necessary environmental push to reduce plastic waste in oceans, plastic straw bans promote sustainability at the cost of accessibility to all, serving as poignant examples of how cities and corporations alike often neglect the needs and voices of people with disabilities.

On July 1st, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to ban the use of plastic straws and utensils, with businesses facing a fine of up to $250 if they are found to be in violation of the ban. Starbucks followed suit a little over a week later, announcing a gradual phasing out of single-use plastic straws through use of a strawless lid or alternative-material straw options available in their stores around the world. This global commitment is projected to eliminate more than one billion plastic straws per year from Starbucks stores. Other businesses and cities are likely to follow suit, with American Airlines, San Francisco, and New York having already vowed or currently considering eliminating the use of straws. Out of all plastic that pollutes the oceans, the question remains: why straws?

Straw bans have quickly gained popularity in recent months because they serve as an easy, low-commitment, initial entry point into the larger issue of plastic pollution. It is simple, effective, and relatively convenient for able-bodied consumers to go without a plastic straw. Buoyed by catchy slogans like “Strawless in Seattle,” “Skip the Straw,” and #stopsucking, straw bans have entered the public’s stream of consciousness with the help of various celebrity campaigns and a disturbing image of a sea turtle with a straw stuck through its nose. The bans help consumers feel that they are doing an environmental good by forgoing the straw while simultaneously raising awareness about the issue of plastic waste in oceans. Yet, bans like Seattle’s ordinance and Starbucks’ recent straw-free announcement exclude the fact that for many people with disabilities, using a plastic straw is a matter of accessibility. Straws are not an amenity or a luxury, but a necessary form of assistive technology that allow consumers with limited mobility to drink. If a business does not include straws when serving beverages, customers with a disability are denied access to a right as basic as something to drink.

Proponents of the straw ban are quick to point out potential accommodations that can be included: there are other materials of straws available, both Seattle and Starbucks’ new policies grant an exception for those with medical or physical needs, and people who truly need straws should bring their own reusable ones. Although all these accommodations exist, they are not friendly to people with disabilities. For consumers who need straws for medical or physical reasons, materials other than plastic do not get the job done. Paper straws dissolve easily and can become a choking hazard, while metal can be too hot or cold, and at times is even painful for those with symptoms like jitters. Plastic straws, although not the most sustainable choice, are currently the best option available due to their low-cost, flexibility for positioning, and ability to safely conduct liquids of different temperatures. Denying people with disabilities access to plastic straws not only restricts what they are able to drink and when they are able to do so, but is fundamentally an issue of accessibility.

Both the city of Seattle and Starbucks included clarifying statements in their respective policies that exceptions would be granted in cases of medical or physical needs. Seattle’s ordinance grants a yearlong exception for those with disabilities through a “waiver for flexible plastic straws, which can be provided to customers who need such a straw due to medical or physical condition” (Archie, Paul 2018). When questioned by the disability community, Starbucks clarified their position in an email, saying “customers are still able to get a straw -- made from alternative materials -- and we will work with the disability community to ensure we continue to meet their needs going forward” (Archie, Paul 2018). Yet, in the case of Seattle, the unfortunate reality is that there does not seem to be widespread awareness of these exemptions. Even if businesses are made aware and have knowledge of an exemption, there is no guarantee that they will automatically comply. This disheartening principle may also play out in Starbucks stores across the country, in addition to the issue that straws made from “alternative materials” are unfriendly for people with disabilities’ use.

Before you ask why can’t people with disabilities merely bring their own reusable straw, take a moment and reflect on why is it that everyone, regardless of ability, doesn’t bring their own straw? Their own reusable mug? Or reusable bag? Simply put, the burden of accessibility should not fall upon people with disabilities. If those who are able-bodied should not be required to carry their own straw around with them, neither should individuals with mobility problems or medical needs. Instead of constantly asking what people with disabilities should be doing to solve the problem, the conversation needs to shift to think of how we can make items accessible to all.

Straw bans are well-intentioned but create a barrier to access for people with disabilities, and the conversation surrounding the bans is representative of a larger issue at hand: why do people with disabilities not have a seat at the decision-making table? By leaving individuals who live the experience of having a disability out of the policy-making conversation, public policy generated by cities and companies alike will continue to exclude those with disabilities. Neither Seattle nor Starbucks appears to have consulted individuals or organizations associated with disability, even when groups such as the Seattle Commission for People with DisAbilities, a volunteer organization whose purpose is to advise the city council or agencies on disabilities issues, are present in the public sphere and more than willing to contribute their thoughts and ideas. By including different voices and perspectives at the decision-making stage of the policy process, sustainability and accessibility can collaborate and complement one another. There is not an absolute choice between one or the other, and with some creative thinking, policies can be designed to be both sustainable and accessible. Inclusivity can ensure environmentally-conscious ideas such as the straw ban do not come at the cost of denying the right to assistive technology.

Julia Camilli (Wellesley '20)

References

1. Anapol, Avery. “Seattle Plastic Straw, Utensil Ban Takes Effect.” TheHill, Capitol Hill Publishing Corp., 2 July 2018, http://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/395118-seattle-plastic-straw-utensil-ban-takes-effect.

2. Archie, Ayana, and Dalila-Johari Paul. “Why Banning Plastic Straws Upsets People with Disabilities.” CNN, Cable News Network, 12 July 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/07/11/health/plastic-straw-bans-disabled-trnd/index.html.

3. Danovich, Tove, and Maria Godoy. “Why People With Disabilities Want Bans On Plastic Straws to Be More Flexible.” NPR, NPR, 11 July 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/07/11/627773979/why-people-with-disabilities-want-bans-on-plastic-straws-to-be-more-flexible.

4. @LCarterLong. “Fabulous. Appreciate you sharing it. Will do the same! RT @JoyceTakako: @JodyJotes @DorfmanDoran @DisVisibility @DREDF @LCarterLong When I don’t have enough spoons to deal with the non disabled I just keep posting this chart. I’m tired.” Twitter, 14 July 2018, 5:59 a.m., https://twitter.com/LCarterLong/status/1018117737405603845.

5. Richardson, Valerie. “Plastic Straw Bans Won’t Save Oceans: ‘We’re Trading a Lot for Nothing’.” The Washington Times, the Washington Times, LLC, 12 July 2018, https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2018/jul/12/plastic-straw-bans-wont-save-oceans-alarm-disabled/.

6. “Starbucks to Eliminate Plastic Straws Globally by 2020.” Starbucks Newsroom, Starbucks Corporation, 9 July 2018, https://news.starbucks.com/press-releases/starbucks-to-eliminate-plastic-straws-globally-by-2020.