Newton city councilor; former chapter director, Massachusetts Sierra Club
Communities should ban plastic straws. Why? Because these omnipresent straws are a highly visible example of the need to reduce the amount of plastic pollution we generate every day. This is particularly true for single-use plastic packaging used for such items as shopping bags, bottled water, and food ware, including straws. Five minutes of convenience lasts literally a lifetime, as most plastic trash is not recycled and effectively never biodegrades, but rather — with sunlight — breaks down into microplastics that make their way into the food chain and water supplies.
The problem is almost too large for our minds to conceive. Every minute, one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into our oceans. In a business-as-usual scenario there will be more plastic than fish by weight in the oceans by 2050. There is plastic in the stomachs of more than half the world’s sea turtles and 90 percent of seabirds. Straws are one of the top 10 items found in beach clean-ups.
Banning plastic straws alone will not solve the problem. But behavioral change does not come in huge sweeps, especially in democratic societies. It comes in small, localized actions that spread. Here in Massachusetts, the Sierra Club counts 80 local plastic bag bans, 28 bans on certain types of disposable plastic food wares, and three communities — Andover, Brookline, and Provincetown — with regulations that directly or effectively prohibit plastic straws. Across the world, governments have recently started to ban plastic straws, while companies such as Starbucks, Aramark, and American Airlines are phasing them out. The Sierra Club’s recommendation for best practice is to make all food service ware — including straws — compostable, recyclable, or reusable.
Before the invention of plastic, humans successfully consumed beverages from restaurants and food establishments. We can do so again. And for those with a disability that makes it harder for them to drink from a cup, such as my nephew who has Down syndrome, restaurants can keep non-plastic straws on hand. Medical facilities can obtain waivers from bans. There are numerous non-toxic alternatives made from paper or reusable metal ones. Some restaurants offer pasta straws. At home, my kids like bamboo straws!
Leo V. Sarkissian
Executive Director, The Arc of Massachusetts, based in Waltham; Walpole resident
Protecting the environment and respecting the needs of people with disabilities do not have to be mutually exclusive. But the rapid wave of corporations discontinuing the use of plastic straws and some municipalities banning them has excluded people with disabilities from both the conversation and the policy. Until that changes, other communities should not proceed with the ban.
Some children and adults who have conditions that impair muscle control, such as cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy, need straws, and in particular straws which are bendable. Susan Wagner White, a Canadian artist born without arms, wrote on the BBC news site that “for many disabled people, the availability and use of a plastic straw is vital for their independence and safety.”
The alternatives are problematic for people with limited mobility. Reusable straws, such as those made of metal, pose a risk of spreading germs and bacteria and need to be washed soon after use.. For some, metal straws are a choking hazard.
In some municipalities with plastic straw bans, such as Seattle, the use of straws is allowed when they are a medical necessity. But given that people with disabilities were not considered in this rush to ban straws, why would we expect that straws will be available as exceptions or that the consideration will hold up over time?
The use of plastic straws is NOT a convenience or a wasteful decision for individuals with specific conditions. In fact, straws are an essential accessibility tool, just like a wheelchair, audio cues at stop lights, or Braille signage. There are people for whom not having plastic straws would limit their access to the community and make it impossible for them to consume liquids safely.
Over the decades, people with disabilities and their families have had to fight to obtain a right to public education, access to quality health care and employment, and reasonable access to transportation. We are far from achieving equality in all these areas, despite the progress which has been made.
The effort to become a more sustainable society must be inclusive. Whether the conversation is about straws or better transportation access, people with disabilities need to be full participants.
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