PERSPECTIVES | Equity vs. the Environment

Navigator Prescpectives logoGrey INCLUDEnyc LogoBlue Line

JuLY 2018

With cities, restaurants, and airlines scrambling to meet growing calls for a plastic straw ban, disability advocates are once again fighting for equity. “It’s as if people who rely on straws — older adults, children, and disabled people — don’t matter and that our needs are less important than the environment. I feel erased by these attitudes,” writes Alice Wong in Eater.

It is true that every year plastic waste kills 100,000 marine creatures. After a video of a turtle with a straw stuck in its nose went viral in 2015, environmentalists launched a campaign to ban plastic straws. Some argue that these efforts are misguided and counterproductive. Plastic straws account for only a small fraction of waste in the ocean.

Yet calls to ban plastic straws are growing. This month, Seattle became the first major city to pass a plastic straw ban, and one of its leading companies, Starbucks, announced plans to phase out plastic straws by 2020.

Disability rights advocates are speaking out, angered that disabled consumers weren’t part of the conversation. “Plastic straws are an accessible way for people with certain disabilities to consume food and drinks, and it seems the blanket bans are not taking into account that they need straws,” says Katherine Carroll, policy analyst at the Center for Disability Rights.

Even though the Seattle straw ban has an optional waiver allowing restaurants to provide plastic straws for physical or medical needs there doesn’t appear to be widespread awareness and compliance with the exemption, and not all people with disabilities have medical needs. Violators of Santa Barbara’s recently enacted straw ban could face up to $1,000 fine and six months in jail, and its ban does not include a disability exemption.

Although alternatives exist, such as paper or metal straws, they don't provide the same flexibility or durability of plastic straws and could pose a safety risk. Autism activist Lei Wiley-Mydske feels the onus of providing a solution is being unfairly placed on people with disabilities. “You're putting this burden on disabled people to come up with a solution. You're not asking companies that manufacture straws to come up with a version that works for us," Wiley-Mydske argues.

Disability advocates will continue to press for their needs to ensure equity.  “I live in a world that was never built for me, and every little bit of access is treasured and hard-won,” Wong continues. “Why would a disabled customer have to bring something in order to drink while non-disabled people have the convenience and ability to use what is provided for free? This is neither just, equitable, nor hospitable.”