Banning Plastic Straws Is Just One Form Of Eco-Ableism


Started by The Lonely Whale, this hashtag began on social media as a way to encourage large companies to ban plastic straws. #StopSucking quickly blew up, with individuals flocking to social media to call out those who still used them. Celebrities joined in, while popular Twitter accounts began reporting on companies and places that had joined the movement.

This hashtag has become incredibly popular, winning a Shorty Award for Social Good Campaign thanks to its 831 million total media impressions. Companies are listening, promising to stop using them all together. Starbucks, for example, removed plastic straws from their stores in 2020, instead creating a straw-less lid and offering alternate options. Advocates were thrilled that a huge chain was creating change. 

Other, more lenient laws have been introduced into legislation. Starting in 2019, California and Oregon have stopped serving single-use plastic straws unless they are specifically asked for, and other states have similar bans in place.

It’s a win for those in the environmentalism sector. Our Last Straw states that single-use plastic straws are one of the top 10 contributors to plastic marine debris around the world; the Florida Department of Environmental Protection reports that 90% of seabirds and 30% of sea turtles have plastics in their stomach. Straws are not biodegradable or recyclable. The plastic continues to disintegrate as time goes on…but it never fully disappears. It just becomes the perfect size for marine life to ingest.

So, basically, it seemed like the only option was to ban plastic straws. And, yes, it’s a fantastic way to save the environment. But it’s also ableist. Here’s how bans on popular items can make life harder for the disabled.


The Need For Plastic Straws

Many people can use silicone, paper, and metal straws just fine. The feeling may take some adjusting to after years of plastic straws, but ultimately, it’s just a change in texture — not a huge deal. But for those with specific disabilities, these changes can affect quality of life. Take those who cannot lift cups due to muscular dystrophy, paralysis, or arthritis, for example. They can’t adjust metal straws to reach their mouths, and paper straws disintegrate. Remove plastic straws from the situation, and what option do they have? 

On top of this, they can be dangerous. A mobility-disabled 60-year-old woman’s metal straw impaled her brain, leading to her death; temperature sensitivity can cause excruciating discomfort when using eco-friendly options; certain straws can cause choking hazards, such as paper and pasta straws; and unknown allergies can lead to reactions like anaphylactic shock. Plastic straws are necessary for those with disabilities, and when places like Starbucks completely remove them from their stores,  disabled customers are suddenly unable to enjoy a frappe.

Environmental Advocates and Ableism

As Dune Ives, executive director of the Lonely Whale Foundation, wrote in an article, “[plastic straws are] the ‘gateway plastic’ to the larger, more serious plastic pollution conversation. Plus, plastic straws are social tools and props.” But those with disabilities are not looking to start that conversation, nor are they using these straws as “props” – they’re looking to survive within and fit into a world that was not built for them.

Plastic straws are not the only accommodations people are shamed for. For example, pre-cut fruit in stores is heavily criticized due to the waste of plastic. But think: those with arthritis may not be able to handle a knife and cut their own apples. People with intense tardive dyskinesia may be able to grasp a knife, but random twitching can cause a slip during slicing. Yes, these packaged pre-cut foods create a larger carbon footprint…but some people may not have other options. Or take those who buy pre-packaged, microwavable meals. You may be able to make your own salads and dinners without plastic, but there are those who can’t prepare food or use stoves or ovens and can only, at most, put food in a microwave.

Not only that, it can be embarrassing to ask for “non-eco-friendly” options. While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects those with disabilities and does not require disclosure in settings such as restaurants, plenty of the world has not yet caught up on what that means. So, when those with disabilities – especially those with invisible disabilities – ask for plastic, they may feel the need to disclose why they need plastic, even if it’s no one’s business. It’s a breach of privacy to ask for this information and completely unnecessary to divulge it, but the fear of judgement can be enough to cause someone differently-abled to justify their needs.   

Those with disabilities want to be eco-friendly. They aren’t boasting that they need plastic, nor are they looking for pity straws. The differently-abled know that their use of plastic can be contributing to the detriment of the environment, and they look to be more eco-friendly in other ways.

Many differently-abled people invest in LED lights and keep their home’s energy usage lower than the average person; only use items that are compostable or recyclable, aside from the plastic they need; and choose renewable replacements, such as reusable bags to bring to the store. These are alternatives that able-bodied people may not think about practicing. Despite this, asking for a plastic straw in public somehow negates all that the differently-abled do to lower their carbon footprint.

In Summary

While saving the environment is important, the world must take those with disabilities into consideration. The ableism within the decision to ban plastic straws is just the tip of the iceberg for those with disabilities, and it’s irresponsible to believe that those who are differently-abled can participate in every way of lessening negative environmental impact. So, keep the plastic straws out of your café unless they’re asked for…and provide them whenever they are. It’s time we begin considering the needs of the visibly- and invisibly-disabled while saving the planet, and eradicate the judgemental looks when someone uses a plastic straw. It’s none of our business, anyway.   


Are you affected by this ableism? Are you supporting the needs of the differently-abled? Let us know in the comments.

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