The Plastic Straw Saga

Content Warning: Ableism and hate.

Disability with Charlotte Paradise.

I’m sure it’s not news to you that we’re living through a global Environmental Crisis and the survival of our planet desperately requires our immediate and substantial action. October 2020 saw the ban on single use plastic straws in the UK and with it came a sort of social shame if you were caught using one. While the rejection of single use plastic is massively important, we have bigger fish (to not) fry and shaming disabled people for using plastic straws isn’t going to save our planet.

Welcoming in the new year traditionally comes with a flurry of resolutions. Maybe some of yours are around sustainability this year. Using less single use plastic? Trying Veganuary? Pledging to only shop for clothes second hand? I’m personally big on sustainability (a huge driver for me being a vegan, which I know isn’t yet accessible to everyone) but what I’m not big on is ableism and we seem to have a bit of an overlap. Disabled people are being demonised for using single use plastic, specifically the star of the Sustainability Show, the publicly shunned Plastic Straw.

Content creator, Eliza, of @disabledeliza, received severely ableist backlash on an Instagram post about how plastic is an access requirement for many disabled people back in September. One comment went as far to disgustingly claim that it would be better to “get rid of disabled people” than allow their single use plastic access requirements because it would be “better for the environment”. This was backed up by another person who wrote that, after all, “disabled people aren’t needed for society [anyway so] why should we damage the planet… to sustain some disfunctional human”. This is vile. There are so many things to pick apart here from the blunt denial of access needs to the brutality of devaluing human life to a point where you would value the ban of plastic straws over a person’s life. But part of Eliza’s response in September puts the point I want to make perfectly: “if your ‘environmentalism’ hurts Disabled people, it’s dangerous”.

No amount of passion for our environment should excuse a person’s ableism on any level. There are many disabled people (obviously) who care deeply and passionately about our planet (myself included) but who cannot, for multiple reasons, be perfectly sustainable. But, then, who can?

Disabled people using single use plastic and plastic have legitimate reasons and, despite the fact that many would love there to be sustainable alternatives to their access needs, there just aren’t any yet. “But there are so many alternatives to plastic straws!” Yes, but they’re not accessible. Metal and bamboo straws don’t bend, which is an injury risk. Silicone straws are difficult to clean, don’t stay in place and can be an allergy risk. Biodegradable and paper straws dissolve too quickly and are, therefore, a choking hazard. Wheat straws are an allergy risk as well as having many of the other problems. Plastic straws enable people to drink, to stay hydrated. These are basic human needs. There is not yet a plastic free straw alternative that suits everyone’s access needs. Those are the facts.

You want the real truth about plastic straws? While the movement to ban them was a good sign that people were starting to care about the ocean, I can’t help but feel like it’s wildly missed the point. As the shocking Netflix documentary Seaspiracy taught us in 2021, straws only account for 0.03% of plastic pollution in our oceans. The biggest polluter? Fishing. By a long way. Scientists predict that if we continue fishing our oceans, they will be fishless by 2048. Suddenly plastic straws feel quite insignificant. I can’t help but wonder how many people who have policed disabled people for needing to use single use plastic like straws, IV drips and baby wipes pay into the fishing industry. My point is that not everyone can do everything perfectly to lead a completely sustainable life. All we can do is to truly do our best. Judgment is not helpful towards or outside of the disabled community.

Disabled people’s medical plastic needs are criticised and yet when it comes to non-disabled people’s health needs, they’re embraced. You only need to take one look at lateral flow tests to see that disparity. Leaving single use plastic and other plastic behind us is a huge part of saving our plant and one I completely support. Channeling our rage, though, at the world’s leading corporations and pollutants and our government’s lack of action and commitment is what may really be needed to see real change. Bullying disabled people for using plastic straws is not the answer.

For more writing on environmental issues, check out Melissa Evatt’s column here.

Image courtesy of Lil McDermaid.

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