Banning Plastic Straws Raises Questions About Inclusivity and Effectiveness

The disability community’s needs should be taken into consideration in the plastic straw debate

Brightly colored straws thrown around on a table. Some of them are showing the lower side of the tube, with only a few of the flexible heads visible. The colors range from blue to red tones.(flickr/Horia Varlan)

Brightly colored straws thrown around on a table. Some of them are showing the lower side of the tube, with only a few of the flexible heads visible. The colors range from blue to red tones.(flickr/Horia Varlan)

In May, Vancouver became the first major Canadian city to ban the use of plastic straws and foam containers by restaurants and food vendors. The ban, which will come into effect in June of next year, is just one of a number of initiatives that the city is undertaking to eliminate the disposal of solid waste to landfills and incinerators by 2040.

However, not everybody—not even all environmentalists—are in support of the ban, and the city has been hit by a wave of criticism for its decision.

One such criticism is that Vancouver City Council failed to consult with disability advocacy groups before voting to approve the ban. Some people who have a restricted ability to drink will be negatively affected, and although a number of alternatives have been proposed—such as paper, biodegradable, and reusable straws—advocates point out that these solutions will not be as readily available as single-use plastic straws are now.

Similar concerns have been raised in Seattle, which was the first city in the United States to ban plastic straws. The city has since allowed restaurants to provide them to people with medical conditions after receiving criticism from members of the disability community. Still, this situation can lead to instances of “othering” for people with disabilities, and shows just how delicately potential solutions for issues like this need to be considered before being implemented.

There is also the question of effectiveness and why so much effort is being placed to eliminate plastic straws when there are larger, more significant items, such as fishing nets, that contribute far more to the production of plastic waste than plastic straws do.

Plastic straws are the 11th most prevalent item found among plastic ocean waste and, along with stirring sticks, make up 3 per cent of the waste found along shorelines.

It is estimated, however that plastic straws only account for 0.03 per cent of the plastic in the ocean, while 46 per cent is derived from abandoned fishing nets. Therefore, it would make more sense to place restrictions on the dumping or production of plastic fishing nets than it does to ban plastic straws.

Still, many argue that the elimination of plastic straws could be a gateway to further environmental efforts and should not be judged solely on the immediate impact it will have. Banning plastic straws is one step closer to removing all plastic in the waste stream. It has the potential to spur on other initiatives that eliminate single use plastics and other harmful products in the environment.

Placing restrictions on the production of plastic fishing nets, for instance, is also not a decision that can be made by the municipal government. Vancouver is not necessarily responsible for the dumping of fishing nets, many of which originate from developing countries that do not have appropriate facilities to dispose of them. It makes sense that the city instead takes initiative on policies it has direct influence over.

Vancouver has, however, made a mistake by failing to include the disability community’s concerns in the consultation process about the straw ban. A significant decrease in the use of plastic straws is in the general interest of all people, including those with disabilities. However, such efforts should not neglect the needs of one of society’s most vulnerable groups, especially if there are solutions that can be developed which keep their interests in mind.

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