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The huge problem with straw bans – and zero waste

Written by

Polly Barks

Seattle. Starbucks. Scotland. By now you’ve been inundated by triumphant Facebook posts about at least one plastic straw ban passing or getting proposed. It’s all very much a good thing, right?


What a lot of these articles are missing is the very real backlash from the disability community who use plastic straws to function, not to make their drinks look cute.

Inspecting straw bans is a good opportunity to look hard at the environmental movement, how inclusive it is, and the ramifications of putting the focus on small, consumer-at-fault issues and ignoring larger systemic issues.

This all comes with a big caveat that I don’t feel I’m qualified to talk about all this from a disability context, so I’ll be pulling quotes from people actually qualified to explain this stuff.

The huge problem with straw bans - and zero waste -

So why the backlash against plastic straw bans?

As a preface,  plastic straws were always meant to be an accessibility item, not a fun consumer product. While straws from natural materials have been around throughout the ages, the plastic bendy straw came about in the 1930s when Joseph Friedman noticed his daughter had trouble drinking a milkshake. Boom – accessibility achieved. These straws were then adopted by the medical world for various uses.

Unfortunately, plastic straws were also co-opted by a system hell-bent on selling people stuff they don’t need. And consumers took advantage of it. Over-consumption led us to this inevitable backlash.

So what’s the problem with the ban? Opponents of plastic straw bans (or people who want more contingencies before it would pass) have two basic points:

  1. It puts an undue burden on people with disabilities, who are already more likely to be poor and lack access to what they need;
  2. Straws do not make up the majority of the waste we create so it’s low-hanging, feel-good fruit.

Let’s look into these points further.

#1: Undue burden on people with disabilities

This is first and foremost an access issue. Imagine going into a restaurant in a city that recently enacted a plastic straw ban and requesting a straw. You could get a response ranging from derisive (“don’t you know they kill turtles?”) to blank looks (“we don’t have them anymore”) to invasive questions about “proving” your disability.

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Here’s someone on Reddit discussing the straw bans and their ramifications further:

While taken in a vacuum, banning straws has a minimal cost to the disabled, it is a extra cost nonetheless, and sets a precedent for laws that unfairly target a group that’s already marginalised, and overwhelmingly poor. There are ways to support the environment without fucking our fellow human over. If disabled people weren’t already marginalized and poor, these laws wouldn’t be an issue.

I don’t need much support with mobility or accessibility, and I already spend 200 dollars a month on my disability. that’s without meds I need, doctors I should see etc. I am not very physically disabled, and as such, my costs are a lot lower than some other disabled people. I go without those things because there are no way for me to fit them in my budget. after rent, I have 200 dollars to live on, and my rent is less than half the average for where i am living.

I don’t have time to get into the horrific way our system treats people with disabilities, but suffice to say the people with the most pressing need will be the most impacted. And many don’t have a margin of money/time/access that they can work with.

The huge problem with straw bans - and zero waste -

And while the temptation to say “hey! you know there are alternatives, right?” is there, that’s an oversimplification. Most people don’t need straws; the ones who do need them for a very specific purpose. That’s why they were created as they were in the first place:

There are many alternatives to plastic straws — paper, biodegradable plastics and even reusable straws made from metal or silicone. But paper straws and similar biodegradable options often fall apart too quickly or are easy for people with limited jaw control to bite through. Silicone straws are often not flexible — one of the most important features for people with mobility challenges. Reusable straws need to be washed, which not all people with disabilities can do easily. And metal straws, which conduct heat and cold in addition to being hard and inflexible, can pose a safety risk. (source)

That being said, if you do require a straw for drinking and want an option, I’ve seen these reusable plastic ones recommended as working for someone. They’re flexible but hard enough if you bite down they don’t crack or close off. This may work – it may not. If not, that’s cool! If it might, let me know if you’re struggling in the wake of the straw bans and I’ll get some to you.

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An additional hurdle I should have considered was the need to clean reusable straws. Instagram user @kitchencadaver reminded me of this and turned me on to the awesome resource that is @mia.mingus who discuss this further.

Essentially, many people with disabilities have carers that come into the home and help them out. Spoiler alert: like most of the US, this system is dysfunctional. Carers are expensive and many people can’t get/afford the hours they need.

And if you need someone to come into the house to help you do X, Y, Z, but you only have two hours a week… is it really worth it to you to have that person fiddle around with your reusable straws for even 5 minutes?

Straw bans suck!

#2: Straws are not the biggest issue

Straws are an easy target because it’s something physical and the straw bans can be seen immediately in day-to-day life. While that’s great (and I totally advocate for making immediate, visible changes to feel rewarded in your zero waste practices), it leaves people with a positive feeling when not much has truly changed.

recent Bloomberg article was eye-opening to me. The biggest bit of waste in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is probably not something you’d ever guess and not something individual consumers directly control:

A recent survey by scientists affiliated with Ocean Cleanup, a group developing technologies to reduce ocean plastic, offers one answer. Using surface samples and aerial surveys, the group determined that at least 46 percent of the plastic in the garbage patch by weight comes from a single product: fishing nets. Other fishing gear makes up a good chunk of the rest.

That same article also stated “Australian scientists estimate that there are up to 8.3 billion plastic straws scattered on global coastlines. Yet even if all those straws were suddenly washed into the sea, they’d account for about .03 percent of the 8 million metric tons of plastics estimated to enter the oceans in a given year.”

While the multitudes of straws getting thrown into the landfill every day are an issue, research suggests it’s not a good use of our collective power to push for a plastic straw ban.

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Beyond that, straw bans once again place the responsibility on the consumer instead of the companies which produce the majority of the world’s pollution. As one article noted:

Traveling from New York to San Francisco on a plane can generate up to three tons of CO2 per person—will banning straws on in-flight service really make a difference? McDonald’s uses 660 gallons of water and produces substantial pollution to make one of their burgers. New York City operates more than 30,000 vehicles, most of which require fossil fuels or use fuels, like biodiesel, that produce emissions.”

My final take? The plastic straw ban is an easy way for people to feel like they’re doing something good, pat themselves on the back, and then ignore the much more destructive, systemic forces behind climate change.

I’m happy that people are becoming more aware of our waste problem, but we can do better. A hyper-focus on one item creates a very superficial concept of what zero waste is working towards. (Me personally? I’m working toward the dismantling of the entire capitalist system. #goals)

Alternatives to straw bans

I think these straw bans are a step in the right direction, philosophically, because even if they aren’t passed, they are making people become more aware of their rampant over-consumption.

Which – again – is not the case of those people using items out of necessity. Still, there are better, higher impact ways to pursue your anti-plastic goals. Here are three ideas to get you started.

The huge problem with straw bans - and zero waste -

Plastic bag bans

Ban the bag. Because honestly, plastic bags are a bigger problem than straws. Plus, they’re also just a pain in the ass. There are low-cost, low-impact non-plastic alternatives that make reusable bags a viable option for everyone. I also think they’re much more durable so they’re less likely to get punctured during shopping maneuvers.

The important thing to note is that reusable bags require huge amounts of energy to produce. One study found it was actually more eco-friendly to use a plastic bag twice than it was to use a reusable tote, although I think they ignore several facts. Like a plastic bag stays on the planet forever as microplastics and using a tote bag 327 times (how long on average a tote takes to break even with a plastic bag, resource-wise) seems very reasonable.

So continue to use your 3-4 totes and repurchase 100% natural fiber second hand or get one from a friend when you need a new one. Remember that creating different consumption patterns isn’t the goal of zero waste – it’s to stop consuming.

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The huge problem with straw bans - and zero waste -

Campaign against fishing nets

Our big fear is plastic going into our waterways, right? Well think back to those statistics on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: at least 46% of the plastic in the garbage patch (by weight) is fishing nets.

On the preventative side, stop eating seafood. A reduction in demand is really the only way to influence companies. Fishing nets will continue to go out as long as there’s demand for seafood. You could also look into ways to support the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ Voluntary Guidelines on marking fishing gear which will help push a global initiative to mark gear so companies who abandon it can be held accountable. Unfortunately, help with that is a bit beyond the scope of this article.

On the cleanup side, check out The Ocean Cleanup, which is building a highly advanced machine to clean up the detritus of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in late 2018. There are job openings as well as a way to donate to help fund the project.

The huge problem with straw bans - and zero waste -

Make a swap with more impact than a plastic straw

Stop eating animal products. Sell your car. Start composting. Tear up your lawn and create a garden. Invest in alternative energy sources for your home. Stay close to home for vacation instead of getting on a plane. Test out a carbon footprint calculator to see how to do better. Pay for carbon offsets for you, your family, and your friends.

If you have the ability, why not make up for a few necessary straws by doing something that will more than compensate for it? We’re all in this fight together. With that, we need to accept we all have different abilities. Those who have the ability to do more, should.

Happily take on the burden of doing extra work, because we can’t call it success if we leave people behind.

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