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Saving the Oceans With My Son and Adrian Grenier

Some ocean advocates want to get rid of plastic straws. But lots of Americans can’t drink without them.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with actor and environmentalist Adrian Grenier during the Our Ocean Conference in Washington, D.C. on September 16th, 2016. (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Former Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with actor and environmentalist Adrian Grenier during the Our Ocean Conference in Washington, D.C. on September 16th, 2016. (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Pour yourself a drink. Sip, and take a moment to wonder at the complex neuromuscular systems in your hand, arm, shoulder, neck, lips, throat, and more that combine so you can lift the glass, control the flow of the liquid with a precise tilt, and swallow without spilling.

Adrian Grenier wants us all to stop sucking. The actor, best known for his role as Vincent Chase on Entourage, co-founded Lonely Whale Foundation to try and keep plastic straws out of the ocean by reducing their use in the United States. It’s a serious issue, given the amount of plastic washing into the sea, at least some of which comes from the 500 million straws we use every day. Why do you need a straw, Grenier’s message suggests, when you can just drink from the rim of a cup? It’s a good message, and also the kind of consumer choice-based environmentalism with which Americans tend to feel comfortable.

There’s a deep tension between environmental consumerism and accessible consumerism.

Here’s the problem: I need every restaurant and gas station in America to have straws, preferably plastic and bendy. My son, a 10-year-old boy with Down syndrome, has never quite mastered that complex series of motions to drink consistently from the lip of the cup. What he can do, though, is curl his tongue around a straw and create appropriate suction to drink, which was quite the triumph when he first learned it. A whole world of easy hydration opened to us. My family is not alone. Straws are a wildly successful example of assistive technology for millions of people with diverse abilities, all of whom are best served by ubiquitous straws. If Grenier gets people to stop sucking, what about my son?

There’s a deep tension between environmental consumerism and accessible consumerism. Many disabled people have come to rely on prepackaged foods, single-serving products, plastic cups, and yes, straws. On the other hand, there are those in the environmental movement who use shame to push people toward better individual decisions for the environment. Last year, a Twitter user named Nathalie Gordon posted a picture of plastic wrapped pre-peeled oranges, taunting: “If only nature would find a way to cover these oranges so we didn’t need to waste so much plastic on them.” It rapidly went viral and today has over 100,000 retweets and likes.

But for many disabled people, these pre-peeled oranges were wonderful. Kim Sauder, who is both disabled and a disability studies scholar, wrote a retort to Gordon, explaining, “As a person with limited hand dexterity, I look at this and see an easier way to eat healthy food.” Sauder, over email, told me that variations on the orange story keep re-appearing; recently, she heard folks yelling about plastic-wrapped peeled avocados. For her, straws and the #stopsucking campaign are part of the same pattern. As Sauder says, “The battles that environmentalists choose to wage are small and focused on products whose removal disproportionately affects disabled people.” Sauder understands why focusing on small things, especially those perceived as unnecessary, is easier than looking at the big picture. Still, she’d like us to focus on “the overall use of plastic,” even though that’s a tougher and more ambitious conversation. We need, Sauder says, to emphasize “systemic change rather than a perceived small sacrifice.”

Here is where the story changes. Over Twitter, I responded to Grenier’s tweet, mostly just to highlight the issue to people who follow my work. He responded, though, and promised to mail me more environmentally friendly straws for my son to try out. (Some were metal, some paper, and some made of bamboo, rubber, or even actual straw.) A package arrived a few days later. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Lonely Whale’s CEO, Dune Ives, reached out to both Sauder and Dominick Evans (I’ve written about Evans’ quest to get a new wheelchair), to talk disability and straws — because they want to find ways to resolve the impasse.

I can’t tell you the new straws work great, regrettably. I poured a glass of milk for my son and stuck a metal straw in it; he went to drink, then looked up at me as if I had canceled Christmas. The cold feel of the metal was a non-starter. Then we tried the paper straw, which seemed to feel better in his mouth, but before long it couldn’t hold up to the milk. It got soggy. My son chews on straws and saliva turned this one squishy (imagine trying to drink through a Pixie Stick wrapper), soon making suction impossible. By the time I went for the bamboo straw, he’d had enough of my nonsense and just wanted his glass of milk.

Simply substituting a different material doesn’t offer a solution here. But there is a social solution. Ivy told me that Lonely Whale is urging venues to move toward an “ask-only policy”: “If I have to opt into a straw when I go a restaurant, that restaurant will see about a 50 percent decrease in usage.”

The disability world tends to be at once improvisational and dependent on consistency. We invent solutions to problems with whatever materials are at hand, but then we become reliant on access to those materials. I need to know that, wherever I go with my son, I can grab a straw. I need to know that whoever he is with can get him a straw, and that, as he gets older, he can access one for himself. Giving him a metal straw to carry around, even assuming he could become comfortable with the sensation, isn’t practical. Ubiquitous high-quality paper straws, on the other hand, might be fine, but the key word there is ubiquitous.

People advocating for more environmentally friendly systems need to think about the ways that diverse people access the world. Before you eliminate a consumer system for ecological reasons, remember that many folks rely on convenient technologies, however environmentally unfriendly. That means persuasive messaging must avoid shaming those who need the technology. Because I want us to all stop sucking, but mostly, I want my son to have a drink.