Why Activists Are Questioning Corporate Plastic Straw Bans

straw bans
(Photo Credit: Tambako The Jaguar, Flickr Creative Commons)

As one major company after another phases out single-use plastic straws, advocacy groups representing people with disabilities are pushing back. Protests have prompted corporations to clarify their plastic straw ban policies.

A flurry of announcements came out over the summer. Corporations including McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Marriott International said they would ditch plastic straws. McDonald’s plans to switch to paper straws while Starbucks introduced a recyclable plastic lid for iced drinks. Marriott International is giving hotel owners and franchisees until next year to identify alternatives. Live Nation banned plastic straws from House of Blues locations in the US, and will offer paper ones upon request only.

Momentum for the bans picked up when a video of a marine biologist take a plastic straw out of a sea turtle’s nose went viral. It also gained steam from vocal environmental groups and legislation targeting single-use plastics. However, people with disabilities who rely on plastic straws say the bans put extra burdens on an already marginalized group.

“Plastic is seen as cheap, ‘anti-luxury,’ wasteful, and harmful to the environment. All true. Plastic is also an essential part of my health and wellness,” Alex Wong, founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project, wrote in an op-ed for Eater. “With my neuromuscular disability, plastic straws are necessary tools for my hydration and nutrition.”

Disability rights activists prepared to protest Starbucks in New York City over the plastic straw ban. The day before the protest, however, representatives from the groups had a call with Starbucks global director for environment Rebecca Zimmer, PBS NewsHour reported. The activists decided to cancel the protests.

The company released a clarification saying, “Starbucks offers, and will continue to offer, straws to customers who need or request them in our stores.”

Having straws available upon request still puts the onus on people with disabilities to do the asking, advocates argue. “People with disabilities,” Wong wrote, “should not have to prove a medical need or even disclose their disability status when having a fun night out with friends. This is not hospitality.” She also says that telling customers to just bring their own straws isn’t equitable.

Instead, she urges establishments to re-examine the kinds of plastic they use, such as plastic wrap and containers, to find additional ways to reduce consumption. If a cafe or restaurant provides straws upon request, Wong suggests having the server offer plastic and biodegradable versions, just as they would for still or sparkling water.

“Listen and learn from your customers’ critiques, including disabled customers,” she advised. “Don’t wait for protests or boycotts before engaging with the disability community.”