Banning Plastic Straws May Harm the Disabled

On Monday, Starbucks joined a growing list of companies in pledging to phase out the use of plastic straws (by 2020). Many other companies — and even cities like Seattle, Wash., and Vancouver, B.C. — have banned plastic straws, widely seen as a fairly easy way to minimize harm to the environment. These bans will make life harder for the disabled, however.

Many disabled people with diseases like muscular dystrophy find it increasingly difficult to lift cups to their mouths. Plastic straws enable them to drink without what would be a herculean effort. There may not be a fitting substitute.

Daniel Gilbert, a 25-year-old in Kentucky who was born with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, keeps plastic straws with him because not all of them are the same. He once left his straws at home while he was at a bar with his friends, and the bar only had plastic stirrers.

"I had to manage, but it took a lot of effort," Gilbert told CNN. "It was really exhausting."

Gilbert's disease causes his muscles to deteriorate, making it harder and harder to pick up cups and glasses.

Starbucks is only one of many companies announcing the phase-out of plastic straws. In May, Bon Appétit Management Company said it would ban such straws by 2019. Furniture giant IKEA promised to remove all single-use plastic from its restaurants by 2020. Airport food-service company HMSHost essentially promised the same thing. One of my favorite restaurants, the Greek joint Cava, announced a similar straw ban on Monday.

Airports, cruise lines, even SeaWorld and Disney's Animal Kingdom joined suit.

In doing so, they all seemingly ignored the plight of disabled people. "Straw bans are a microcosm of the larger issue," Emily Ladau, an activist and writer on disability issues and someone suffering from the bone growth disorder Larsen syndrome, told CNN. "Access needs are entirely ignored."

For disabled people who need plastic straws, other materials don't make the cut. Paper straws dissolve, or you can bite through them. Metal can get too hot or too cold, and can cause pain for people with symptoms like jitters. As Gilbert's case shows, reusable straws are also often left 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 Seattle nonprofit, wrote in a letter to the city.

"I'd be more than happy to use more environmentally friendly straws," Gilbert told CNN. He argued that the disabled community "isn't trying to be anti-environment. We're just protecting disabled people."

When asked about accommodating the disabled, Starbucks said "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."

CNN noted that the London Plane, a Seattle restaurant, has adopted compostable plastic straws, which "may be an ideal compromise." Not all environmental activists agreed, however.

Kate Melges, the plastics campaigner at Greenpeace USA, opposed even those straws, because they must be incinerated at high temperatures to be broken down, and — you guessed it — that causes air pollution. "You can't just throw them in your garden," she quipped.

The Seattle ban has 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.

The irony of green activists fighting disability activists has been compounded with another irony: Starbucks' new lids require more plastic than the straws did!