Plastic-free products are gaining popularity due to growing concerns about climate change and our environment, but some environmentally friendly initiatives have proven downsides. Plastic straw bans — like those instituted in Syracuse University dining halls last year —limit accessibility to those who have disabilities and chronic illnesses.
The fight against plastic straws picked up speed after a video of scientists pulling a plastic straw out of a sea turtle’s nose went viral in 2018. The movement has gained even more popularity as major corporations like Starbucks, Disney and Whole Foods announced plans to eliminate the use of plastic straws within the next two years. On campus, plastic straws have been replaced with paper alternatives in all five residential dining halls.
But straw bans aren’t an equitable solution to our plastic waste woes.
Individuals with mobility issues are not always able to lift cups high enough to drink from them, and individuals with limited motor or mobility skills may not be able to hold cups without spilling. Bendable straws reduce the risk of spilling liquids and allow an angle for safe drinking. Alternatives to plastic straws, such as straws made of steel, glass or silicone are not bendable. Glass straws can be easily broken by individuals with facial tics or nerve damage, and compostable straws made of paper or pasta break down quickly, increasing the risk of choking.
“Sometimes people have disabilities around memory or disabilities on executive functioning,” said Kate Pollack, coordinator of the Disability Cultural Center of Syracuse University. “It can be really hard to remember that all the time.”
Some companies have chosen to make plastic straws available upon request, but people with disabilities should have access to the products they need without having to ask and without having to be judged for using a less environmentally-conscious option than able-bodied people.
One way to ensure more equitable environmental solutions is to focus on the solutions that will have the biggest impacts. Banning plastic straws focuses on just one small aspect of plastic waste.
“We can still reduce those single-use plastics at the same time as we can provide access for disabled people,” said Pollack. “It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing situation. So instead of putting the onus on the disabled person, let’s change society, because society is really the barrier.”
While it may be easy to jump on the bandwagon of the latest environmental fad, people should be more thoughtful about how such all-or-nothing approaches to environmentalism can impact those who aren’t exactly like them. Instead of pushing corporations and universities to ban plastic products some communities need, let’s push them to create and purchase products that are environmentally conscious and accessible for all consumers.
Reducing our plastic consumption is necessary, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of our classmates.
Madeline Johnson is a junior international relations and magazine journalism major with a minor in Spanish. Her column appears biweekly. She can be reached at [email protected]
Published on September 2, 2019 at 10:32 pm