Why banning plastic straws upsets some people with disabilities

NEW YORK —┬áBanning plastic straws is meant to be a proactive step in easing the burden that plastic waste has on our environment, but the bans may make life more complicated for people with disabilities.

Daniel Gilbert uses plastic straws to drink his coffee in the morning. For much of his life, the 25-year-old has carried them with him everywhere. He’s had to, because all plastic straws aren’t the same.

Gilbert needs them to be the right length, and they have to be able to handle hot temperatures. And many restaurants don’t offer what he needs.

The Owensboro, Kentucky, resident was born with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a genetic disorder that causes the muscles to progressively deteriorate. As his muscles weakened, it became harder for him to pick up something like a cup, so Gilbert began carrying straws when he reached his twenties.

One night, he left his straws at home while he was at a bar with his friends. Typically, he uses bendable ones to position the straw closer to his mouth. But all the bar had was plastic stirrers.

“I had to manage, but it took a lot of effort,” he said. “It was really exhausting.”

Gilbert and other people with disabilities fear that a growing effort to ban plastic straws will limit their accessibility at restaurants, on airplanes and at other service establishments.

Starbucks announced Monday that by 2020, it will phase out the use of all plastic straws in its cafes. This came a little more than a week after Seattle, the birthplace of the coffee giant, banned plastic straws and utensils from the city’s restaurants, bars and food trucks.

American Airlines said Tuesday that it too will eliminate straws from its in-flight beverage service starting in November, replacing them with stir sticks. The announcement follows a similar move by Alaska Airlines.

Why plastic is better than alternative materials

Going without straws can mean struggling through the physical motion of putting a drink to a mouth, or leaking liquid into the lungs, or choking.

Emily Ladau, an activist and writer on disability issues, has Larsen syndrome, a disorder that affects the development of bones. Ladau is primarily affected in her lower body, so she does not rely on straws, but opts for them because it can be difficult to maneuver in a wheelchair and drink at the same time.

For people who need straws, materials other than plastic just don’t do the job.

Paper? It dissolves, or you can bite through them. Metal? It can get too hot or too cold, and can even be painful for those with symptoms like jitters. Reusable straws can easily be forgotten at home.

“Other types of straws simply do not offer the combination of strength, flexibility, and safety that plastic straws do,” Disability Rights Washington, a nonprofit with offices in Seattle, said in a letter it coauthored to the city.

Gilbert has tried to do his part to educate others on why plastic is the most efficient material, but he often gets told he’s wrong.

“I’d be more than happy to use more environmentally friendly straws,” he said. “(The disabled community) isn’t trying to be anti-environment. We’re just protecting disabled people.”

Starbucks, when asked about steps they would take to accommodate the disabled, said in an email, “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.”

It is unclear what those materials will be or if plastic straws would still be available.

The London Plane, a Seattle restaurant, started using compostable plastic straws before the ban, which may be an ideal compromise.

But Kate Melges, the plastics campaigner at environmental group Greenpeace USA, said those straws still pose a threat as they must be incinerated at high temperatures to be broken down, which causes air pollution.

“You can’t just throw them in your garden,” she said.

Why focus on straws?

The National Park Service estimates that Americans use 500 million “drinking straws” a day.

Melges, who monitors ocean pollution, told CNN that plastic straws make up a small percentage of the debris found in the oceans and other bodies of water.

On cleanups, she finds many more food wrappers and plastic bottles than straws. But she believes straws are a simpler problem to overcome.

“They’re a relatively easy item to eliminate,” she said. “They’re not a necessity for every single person … they’re the first entry point into tackling plastic pollution.”

What the Seattle ban means

In the Seattle ordinance, there is a yearlong exception for those with disabilities.

“The new director’s rule provides a waiver for flexible plastic straws, which can be provided to customers who need such a straw due to medical or physical condition,” City of Seattle spokeswoman Ellen Pepin-Cato told CNN.

Proof of a disability will not be necessary, Pepin-Cato said. However, the decision to provide plastic straws if needed is up to businesses.

“Requiring people with disabilities to treat a routine fast food trip as something that requires planning and supplies is an unplanned failure in equity,” wrote Disability Rights Washington in its letter to the city.

Ladau, the disability activist, expressed similar concerns.

“Straw bans are a microcosm of the larger issue,” she said. “Access needs are entirely ignored.”

In other cities with straw bans, such as Miami Beach, Florida, there’s no such exception. Miami Beach is, however, considering implementing a three-month educational program to get feedback from residents and businesses.

“The (Americans with Disabilities Act) was passed 28 years ago,” Gilbert said. “There should be sweeping policies.”