Banning Plastic Straws is Ableist

Since I just wrote a series on ableism, I guess that makes me an expert now, even though I’m not disabled… right?

Obviously not. That’d be absurd. The experts are all the people who’s articles I linked to and quoted from. And I wish to do that again, because there’s a new movement going around that has some very ableist consequences that a lot of people just straight up aren’t considering or don’t seem to care about. That movement is the one to ban plastic straws.

First let’s start off with the fact that I’m an environmentalist. I’m not perfect… I’m still an omnivore, and I drive a 2008 Scion rather than a hybrid or fully electric car (because I can’t afford either of the latter ones, even though I want one)… but I try to reduce my carbon footprint where I can by driving less, following the 3 R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle), and so on. So you’d think I’d be the first one to support a ban on plastic straws.

There is a serious issue, here, however. Plastic straws (and, indeed, a lot of plastic stuff) are extremely useful to the disabled community. Plastic straws are more flexible and more sanitary (from a use perspective) than any of the reusable options. They are also sturdier than paper straws, which are not all that waterproof and can dissolve and thus break in liquid. People with mobility issues, or muscle control issues, need those plastic straws.

Now let’s talk about why…

First things first… you probably already know about the tragic and horrible video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck up its nose. I’m not going to link to the video, because it’s rather graphic, but some of the links I’ll be using here might have the video, so you’ll find it in one of them if you’re inclined to watch it. I watched it and… to be honest… I wish I hadn’t. My nose hurts… and I’m not saying that to be “funny” or facetious. It is painful, sad, and angering video to watch.

That video is what made this Plastic Straw Ban movement popular. And I can see why… it’s consistently horrible to see the consequences of human technology on non-human animals… birds with their heads stuck in plastic can holders, sea animals caked in spilled oil, giant islands of plastic trash floating in the oceans destroying ecosystems, whole forests disappearing to our insatiable need for wood, landfills slowly eating away at the ground…

We humans are destructive. That is simply a fact. To get the resources we desire, we will straight up kill non-human animals and wipe out ecosystems to get them, without any thought to how our actions will impact the home on which we evolved. The earth is in the middle of an extinction event caused by us humans, and that’s separate from, though obviously exacerbated by, Global Warming. (Yes, that’s a Wikipedia link. There are 170 references and links to further reading. Deal with it.)

Plastics, of course, are some of the worst pollutants we’ve come up with. Not at all biodegradable, plastic things that get thrown out end up in an ecosystem, like the ocean, and utterly destroy it. It affects and even kills non-human animals in those ecosystems, and completely disrupts lives. I 100% understand that animosity environmentalists have towards plastics. It makes perfect sense. There’s nothing environmentally friendly about them. And maybe… one day… we should get rid of plastics entirely.

So what’s the problem? With everything I’ve just said, why am I against the plastic straw ban?

I already said why… it’s ableist. It quite literally steps on every single disabled person who needs plastic straws in order to drink… well… anything. This chart very clearly shows the problem with alternative forms of straws. Here’s a transcript:

Many disabled people need plastic straws to drink, eat, take medications, etc. Here’s how current, reusable options are a harm to us.

Choking Hazard Injury Risk Not Positionable Costly for Consumer Not High-Temp Safe








*Pressure to create bio-degradable straw options that are safe for the environment AND for all disabled people should fall upon the manufacturer, NOT marginalized disabled consumers.
*Once we accept the necessity of plastic straws, we can work together on other environmental initiatives that are effective, inclusive, and accessible.

So for many in the disabled community, plastic straws are the only option.

The other problem with the whole Plastic Straw Ban idea is that it, in fact, won’t have much of impact. Plastic straws already have very little impact in terms of pollution, given that they only make up about 0.02% of the plastic waste in our oceans. On top of that, what happens to all the already manufactured plastic straws if a ban is implemented? They are… well… wasted. All of those unused straws will end up in landfills and in the ocean. So banning them will actually increase plastic waste. So there is no environmental benefit to banning plastic straws. Oil spills do quite a bit more damage than plastic straws ever could, as do those plastic can rings, plastic bags, and several other far more in-use disposable products that we use constantly.

Further, this ban is yet another way that the blame for Global Warming and environmental degradation is shifted away from corporations and onto the consumer. Instead of campaigning to ban the creation of plastics in the first place, we’re shifted to individual plastic straws… a product with an extremely tiny… indeed, almost negligible… carbon footprint. And for my left-leaning and Socialist friends… this also benefits corporations in that, by banning plastic straws, corporations can start selling reusable straws. And because they’ll be forcefully expanding a market that is currently very small, they’ll be able to set their own prices for these straws. And you’re not really thinking deep enough if you think this won’t happen or that it isn’t already part of Disney’s and Starbucks’ calculations in their drive to ban these straws (Disney’s already banned them, and Starbucks wants to by 2020).

So what about a compromise? This is talked about a lot. The idea that, instead of having the plastic straws readily available for everyone, they should be in the back of the store, and only given to customers who request them. This sounds like the perfect solution. And it does appear to be on the surface. The problem is that it also relies on able-bodied people to not be gatekeepers. Institute a policy like this, and it will only take days before stories like “you don’t look like you need a straw” and “we only give these straws to people who need them” start pouring in. And again… corporations could easily start charging for them. Even if it’s no more than, like, $0.05 or $0.10, it’s still an opportunity for extra profit for corporations.

To co-opt and re-purpose a saying, here… my environmentalism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit. The environmental movement has a history of ignoring and stepping on the disabled community for its purposes. And this has to stop. We need to start listening to the disabled community, and stop trying to take away the things that help them in the name of environmentalism. Banning plastic straws will do absolutely nothing. It will not help the environment in any appreciable way, and it will not lower anybody’s carbon footprint. But it will hurt an entire community of people who need these straws.

Here are some more resources for your reading pleasure about this issue…

The Mary Sue – The Move to Ban Plastic Straws is Plagued by Ableism
The Star – Anti-straw movement isn’t considering people with disabilities, advocates say
NPR – Why People With Disabilities Want Bans On Plastic Straws To Be More Flexible
ABC Australia – Ban on plastic straws has unintended consequences for people with disabilities who rely on them
IJR Red – Plastic Straw Bans Alienating Customers With Disabilities
BBC – Disability group wants pause on straw ban campaign
Huffington Post UK – Straws Save Lives Like Mine – Don’t Ban Them!
Mashable – 4 things we learned about plastic straw bans from people with disabilities
Now This News – Disability Rights Advocates On the Problem With Banning Plastic Straws (video… but does includes a written story with partial quotes; the video also has closed captioning)

Please stop trying to ban plastic straws. It’s doing absolutely nothing but harming a large group of people. And I’m curious… why is the life of a turtle more important than the life of someone who needs plastic straws in order to be able to drink? That’s not say that the life of that turtle, or the life of any non-human animal, isn’t important. They most certainly are. But humans’ lives are not less important, and we need to stop acting like they are.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    It seems pretty likely that, whenever a problem gets identified, the first solution that gets proposed will 1) be leapt upon by all sorts of people, 2) do nothing to inconvenience the truly powerful, and 3) do nothing to solve the problem. The straw ban seems to fit that trend exactly. (Other examples: taking off shoes in airports and other ‘security theater,’ entering zip codes while buying gas, building a wall, and many more.

    A moment’s thought would tell you that, if plastic was really a problem, then the LIDS of cups in convenience stores should be equally targetted — they use as much plastic or more. But they won’t be, because this is theater.

    I’m fairly sure that plastic in landfills isn’t causing most of the problem. The real problem isn’t plastic — it’s littering. Specifically, littering close to bodies of water. If we really wanted to do something about this, we would significantly put up a lot more trash cans and make sure they get emptied, increase littering fines, and put up cameras in places that attract litter to enforce anti-littering laws. But that would inconvenience people who matter in a way that straw bans won’t.

  2. Dunc says

    It’s like somebody sat down to deliberately come up with the most utterly pointless, ineffective action they could think of that would still allow people to claim to be “doing something” for the environment whilst not actually making any changes to their own lifestyles…

    To borrow something I saw on FB: “If you think plastic straws are bad, just wait ’til you hear about SUVs.”

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    Ah, the desire for quick, easy answers to complicated problems. Seems to be a much worse problem in the Internet Age than it used to be, or maybe that’s a misperception on my part. Unintended consequences, and all that.

    Reminds me a bit of the craze to buy reusable shopping bags so you didn’t use plastic ones from the stores. As a consequence, large areas of rainforest in Madagascar were cleared to grow the plants (sisal, I think) used to make the bags. There’s some dark comedy for ya.

  4. says

    I hardly ever use a straw while out because I either stop at a coffee shop with table service and ceramic cups, or drink from a refillable water bottle. The waste straw/cup/lid problem would be better managed by making slow food an attractive option.

  5. says

    They banned plastic straws up here in Seattle, and I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’m certain the next step is — tax the alternatives. Precedent has already been set. They took our plastic grocery bags, AND taxed the paper bags (thankfully my regular grocery store is outside the city limits). Mark my words, it’ll happen.

    As for the ableist angle, I get what you’re saying. Waiting for that shoe to drop now too.

    (That’s three shoes, there’s anorher figurative shoe missing out there someplace.)

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