How Will the Plastic Straw Ban Affect Some People With Disabilities?

How Will the Plastic Straw Ban Affect Some People With Disabilities?

In 2018, the pressure to ban single-use plastics is gaining momentum. Many public campaigns focus solely on the disposable plastic straw as a source of plastic pollution. Though this seemingly innocent item is clearly contributing to the 12.7 million tonnes of plastic waste dumped in our oceans each year, simply banning it has caused a major dilemma for people living with disabilities.

While the outright ban of single use plastics is ostensibly a good thing, the finer details haven’t been worked out; these include individuals, often disabled, who need plastic straws to drink safely.

The impact on the disabled community

If plastic straws are to become unavailable, this will negatively affect people with impaired motor functions. Put plainly, those who have difficulty controlling their hands, arms, mouths, tongues – or are unable to move these body parts due to paralysis – would find drinking noticeably more difficult, if not impossible.

Of course, reusable straws are available. However, when put into practice, various individuals find these replacements don’t allow them to drink safely and with the same flexibility as with plastic straws.

Plastic straw alternatives and their drawbacks

Each plastic straw alternative is less likely to damage the environment; is easier to recycle (with the exception of silicone); and is produced using current manufacturing methods. However, each one has its drawbacks.

Metal straws are easily recycled and durable, but are hazardous to people with spasms that may cause biting down on the straw.

Paper straws can be sourced and supplied by current food vendors; they are biodegradable if carelessly discarded but are prone to collapse when used for hot drinks.

Bamboo straws are better with hot drinks and have the same advantages of paper but, like metal straws, are a safety concern as they are too strong and inflexible.

Silicone straws have a high approval rating but are not ideal for all users, will not biodegrade and are difficult to recycle once discarded.

Leading biodegradable plastic straw manufacturers recommend their straws be used with liquids no hotter than 40 degrees, which rules out soup and Starbucks coffee which is served at 70 degrees.

Which companies are changing the way they use plastic straws?

Pub and food chains All Bar One and Wetherspoons (with over 900 pubs in the UK) switched to biodegradable plastic straws on request in late 2017 and early 2018. McDonald’s are trialling paper straws in selected restaurants. Pizza Express and Wagamama made the same move as the pub and food chains in summer 2018.

Costa Coffee and Pret a Manger are switching to biodegradables in 2018 with bendy plastic straws available by request in Pret only. Starbucks have made the odd choice to replace plastic straws with specially designed recyclable plastic lids, which leaves them without a plastic straw alternative suited to disabled customers. Supermarkets such as Waitrose have taken plastic straws off the shelves and will replace them with a biodegradable alternative in the future.

Potential backlash to the disabled

Unfortunately, the case for disabled individuals to use plastic straws risks painting the disabled community as uncaring for the environment. As Penny Pepper writes in the Guardian, this is far from the case and is a difficult decision for people with specific needs to navigate, in so far as basic needs (to drink) and environmental sensibilities clash.

Potential solutions

Certain ideas have proven divisive. The proposition for plastic straws to become a ‘special medical item’, prescribed via a doctor, risks further unnecessary, unfair assessments which many individuals go through annually to receive the medical or financial help they need.

Some restaurant chains have taken it into their own hands by taking a ‘plastic straw by request’ policy. This seems to work, but of course, every measure should be taken for people requesting straws to be made to feel comfortable with the request, and not be singled out as an exception to a hard and fast rule.

Another problem is the financial implications. Any action taken to resolve the single-use plastics debate, including plastic straws, should not disproportionately affect disabled individuals who face extra costs of £570, on average, per month.

Straws that may work for you

If you are interested in anticipating a change in the way the UK handles plastic straw use and would like to find your own plastic straw alternative, here is a useful guide written by an author living with cerebral palsy. Karin Wilson has trialled each straw and reviewed the results in detail to help others who require straws to drink and live comfortably.

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