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Banning Straws Won't Save the Oceans

Instead of shaming disabled consumers who rely on straws, let's hold producers of plastic financially responsible for their waste.
Drinking straw ocean plastics disability

Every few months, another city, state, or country announces that it's banning the use of plastic straws. These policies are meant to lead the way in removing plastics from the ocean, but, according to our best estimates, straws are not a major source of marine plastic pollution, and such laws are unlikely to have a noticeable affect on the levels of plastic entering our waters. The proposed bans do, however, have the unintended effect of making restaurants less accessible for many disabled people, while revealing the ableism embedded in far too much consumer-based environmentalism.

There's a better way. Instead of bans, we should shift all our use of disposable plastics from opt-out to opt-in. At the same time, let's recognize the limits of focusing on consumer choice. Want to reduce plastics in the ocean? Make the producers pay for their waste.

The most recent proposals to ban straws are popping up around Europe and North America. In some cases, the bans are literally just on straws. Other bans target a broader swath of single-use plastics, including plastic cutlery and stir-sticks. But most of the coverage and promotional materials associated with the bans target straws. Last week, for example, the European Union proposed banning straws and other plastics. The city of Vancouver is debating a ban on plastic straws. This year, the United Kingdom has proposed banning plastic straws, as have TorontoNew York City, and the State of California.

The fixation on straws is weird. There's definitely way too much plastic in our oceans, so getting rid of any plastic can be a persuasive idea. I have been unable to find any evidence, though, that straws are a particularly big problem when it comes to the complex systems of use and waste that pour plastic into our seas, as opposed to plastic bags and micro-plastics, for example. Advocates of straw bans, including campaigners in Vancouver, frequently cite a study asserting that consumers in the United States throw away 500 million straws every day. When ban advocates in California cited the 500 million number back in January, Reason writer Christian Britschgi did some research and discovered that the figure had been guesstimated by a nine-year-old boy based on his phone calls to three straw companies. The real number is closer to 175 million straws a day. That's a big number, but, in the scope of daily global plastic use, not nearly as dangerous as balloons, plastic bags, or the many sources of microscopic plastics.

The oddly singular focus on straws may date back to a a viral 2015 video of a sea turtle with a bloody plastic straw embedded in its nose. The video is horrific. But again, scholars have not identified straws as a particularly grave threat to marine wildlife. The authors of a 2016 study in Marine Policy asked a wide array of experts to rank the items that pose the greatest threats to animal well-being, and found that "fishing-related gear, balloons, and plastic bags were estimated to pose the greatest entanglement risk to marine fauna. In contrast, experts identified a broader suite of items of concern for ingestion, with plastic bags and plastic utensils ranked as the greatest threats." Despite the threat that balloons genuinely pose, Gabrielle Peters, a disabled writer living in Vancouver, points out on Twitter that the Vancouver Park Board defeated an attempt to ban them in 2017.

For Peters and many other disabled people, the fixation on banning straws feels arbitrary. As I wrote for Pacific Standard last year, straws provide a simple, accessible means for many disabled people to drink. My son, who has Down syndrome, is one of them. His mastery of drinking through ubiquitous plastic straws makes every restaurant and gas station a place where he can a drink without worrying. Straw bans erode that easy accessibility. Moreover, every time people like me raise the importance of plastic straws, we get bombarded with well-meaning attempts to inform us about the exciting new world of metal, glass, bamboo, paper, and compostable straws. There's a kind of implicit dismissiveness behind the idea that people who rely on plastic straws for hydration might not ever have considered alternatives. For my son, as with many others, plastic straws offer a remarkable combination of affordability, tensile strength, and flexibility. While some disabled people can use or even prefer harder reusable straws, metal, wood, or glass straws can be dangerous, uncomfortable, or ineffective for others. Compostable straws made of vegetable matter have a similar feel as standard plastic straws (and my son likes them), but they are vastly more expensive than plastic straws and raise concerns about food allergies.

There's a real tension between consumer-based environmentalism, and the need to maintain and expand accessible options for disabled consumers, which often involve plastic. It's good to raise awareness about waste, but I've been struck over the last year by how often conversations around straws quickly grow hostile. People are so eager to tell me about other kinds of straws, assuming we haven't tried or are woefully uninformed. I wish these people might learn to trust that disabled people, as disability scholar Kim Sauder recently tweeted, generally know their needs and how to meet them—unless they ask for advice.

There's no reason that accessibility and environmentalism have to be in conflict, but we may have to be a little more creative instead of imposing paternalistic bans. When it comes to straws, we can simply shift from an opt-out to an opt-in model. Instead of providing a straw to everyone, only provide straws—and other forms of disposable plastics—to people who ask. Provide them to everyone who asks, without question, without assessing them for need or disability. Do the same with bags, utensils, cups, and all kinds of single-use plastics. Cut waste, but don't interfere with disabled people's access to liquid.

There's nothing wrong with pushing people to be more environmentally conscious. But individual action is not going to save our oceans. Our industrial systems continue to flood waste facilities with plastics, big and small. From there, plastics flow into rivers and streams and are carried into the sea. We need to look at the systems that generate these plastics, and hold producers financially responsible for safe disposal. Let's put our efforts where the money is, rather than shaming disabled consumers who just want an accessible drink of water.