The Problem With Banning Plastic Straws

Photo of five different colored bendy plastic straws
The City of Plattsburgh has been asked to institute a ban of disposable plastic straws, and several Council members are open to discussing it in a way that could lead to some kind of official ban.

Elizabeth Izzo, Sun Community News - August 8, 2018

This is part of a growing nation-wide trend ... a popular, seemingly simple way to respond the serious problem of mass plastic waste, particularly in the world's oceans. However, one important consideration has been consistently overlooked, and when brought up, has been largely dismissed, sometimes rather harshly.

The problem with banning plastic straws is that many people with significant physical disabilities depend on them to drink liquids every day. It is a basic and indispensable accessibility tool, with no replacement currently available that is durable, safe, and affordable. The disability community has spent the last several weeks trying to inform people about this problem, and help craft good-faith solutions that address the environmental problem while meeting the needs of people with disabilities.

One solution that might work for Plattsburgh is instead of banning plastic straws completely, to ban restaurants from handing them out without being asked ... while at the same time allowing them to continue to carry plastic straws for any customer to request.

It would be important to allow this "on request" provision not just for disabled people -- because having to make a “special” request stigmatizes disabled people. Some servers might be nice about it, but others might think it’s okay to question the disabled customer, or act like it’s lazy, selfish choice, or an annoyance. Disabled people are often treated poorly when they have to ask for special assistance, or even legally required and sensible accommodations. Even using handicapped parking can subject us to glares if we don’t “look disabled enough.”

As for using alternative types of straws:


Just about all alternative currently available have problems. Paper straws break down with hot beverages. Metal and other rigid material straws can cause injury. The reason some disabled people need straws is that they have difficulty controlling their hand and head movements. If a plastic straw pokes you in the face because of twitch or tremor, it’s no big deal. If a metal straw pokes you it can hurt you. Some people also bite down on the straw to control it, and a metal straw is bad for that, while plastic straws both give and hold up. And straws that bend are often critical. In fact, plastic bendy straws were originally invented for hospitals, for patients who couldn’t drink independently from a cup.

This all sounds very nit picky and particular to people who don’t have this kind of disability, but they are real issues.

It’s not just about disabled people who may be customers already, it’s that a straw ban becomes yet another barrier, a reason why a significantly disabled person might choose to stay at home, because being “out” in the community is just that little bit more uncomfortable. It’s another way to feel unwelcome, like a “problem.”

That’s not a social condition Plattsburgh should be contributing to.

We are asking that anyone who can talk about direct experience of using plastic straws for disability-related reasons let us know if they are willing to speak out on this proposal and possible alternatives. You can contact us through our website: www.ncci-online.com, or by calling us at 518-563-9058.

For further reading on this issue:

Karin Hitselberger, Washington Post - July 12, 2018

Alice Wong, Eater - July 19, 2018

Maria Godoy, National Public Radio - July 11, 2018