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Why People With Disabilities Are Sick of Hearing, “You Can/I Just.” And I Am Too.

I would estimate that 95% of plastic straws are completely superfluous.

You don’t need them for iced coffee, most cocktails, juice, or water – and yet we get straws in all of these things as a matter of course.

Hurricane glasses, like the ones that resorts and restaurants like TGIFridays serve sugary piña coladas in, do need straws: they are impossible to elegantly drink out of without the straw – I’ve tried.  Stop using them, bars. And bartenders and baristas use straws to stir up cocktails and iced coffee. Come on, use a metal stirrer.

Straws are in fact the seventh most commonly collected type of plastic during beach cleanups. They’re the first on resort-heavy beaches, as I heard from an eco-friendly resort in the Dominican Republic.

This is why environmental advocates are focusing on straws. They’re a problem for the ocean, with a very compelling mascot, the sea turtle. Unlike a lot of plastic, it seems easy to get rid of them. And it’s a consumer-facing issue that can act as a gateway for people into broader anti-plastic and environmental activism.

There are situations, though, in which you do need a straw: mojitos and mint juleps (the sugar sinks to the bottom and you get a face full of mint and tasteless soda water if you try to sip from the top of the glass), smoothies (too easy to dump smoothie liquid on your face), and if you have a disability that limits your range of motion.

And this is where a war is brewing between two different camps of progressives: the anti-plastic, zero-waste, ocean-loving activists; and the disability advocates. While the former are cheering the quick spread of plastic straw bans around the world, disability advocates are saying, “Hey, wait a minute. I need a straw.”

You Can/I Just

I’ve recently noticed that whenever someone admits on social media that they’ve produced any waste for a legitimate reason, such as taking medicine or being a human being who has a complex and messy life, environmentalists and zero-waste enthusiasts (not the leaders of the movement that I’m friends with, more like their followers) do this thing I call the, “You Can/I Just” cliché.

“I just eat strawberries for anti-inflammation.” “You can send the packaging back to the company.”

No, eating strawberries does not help with IUD insertion or a sore throat. And sending packaging back to manufactures does diddly-squat except steal your precious time. (Those are real examples, by the way.)

In the case of people with disabilities saying they need straws, they hear, “You can use a metal straw.” “I just carry a reusable straw.”

This cliché drives me up the wall, and I’m a privileged, ably-bodied person of means with a flexible schedule. It takes the very real challenges that face anyone who wants to produce less waste or use less plastic, and instead of acknowledging that challenge and wondering what we can do as a society to address it, it twists it to make it about the person’s lack of willpower, effort, or imagination.

“You can/I just.” For people with disabilities, this righteous advice gets them really in a huff, because honestly, stop telling them about things they’ve probably already tried and that entail more work and time that they don’t have.

But still. We find ourselves in a situation where straws aren’t used just for mint juleps, smoothies, and situations in which someone with a disability wants to enjoy a hot green tea. They’re used for everything. And it’s an exhausting, lonely battle to try to remember to say “No straw!” before you order literally any beverage ever, because you just never know. Orange juice? Pisco Sour? A glass of tap water? A soda can? All places in which establishments shove a straw without asking. And even if you do remember to say, “No straw,” the bartender forgets and puts a straw in anyway.

Clearly, our current opt-out system is not working.

Look, if we can convince restaurants and bars ourselves that we are repelled by straws, and then we can convince governments to come down on restaurants that are being lazy or putting straws in drinks because of inertia or misinformation, we can eliminate most of the straws that are being swept by the wind onto the beach and then in the ocean.

But, there’s still a lot of debate about the best way to go about this task without putting an additional burden on our most vulnerable members of society. So let’s run through and consider each of our options for vanquishing straws:

  1. Carry a reusable straw around with you. This is Instagram catnip. And I do carry a glass straw around with me… most of the time. I used to carry a bamboo one which was harder to clean. (Kathryn of Going Zero Waste has a fun “Which Straw Are You” quiz. I got “metal.”) But this approach has its limits. For one, we can’t expect everyone to start carrying around straws – especially men, who are less likely to have a bag on them. And for people with disabilities, forgetting a straw wouldn’t be just a matter of guilt, it would be an emergency. And forget about washing them every day. Let’s not add another thing to their full plate. Finally, carrying a straw with you doesn’t make bartenders stop putting them in your drink, or anyone else’s drink. It still allows for that moment when you say, “No straw” or even wave yours around, and the bartender shrugs and uses a straw to stir and taste your drink before chucking it in the trash. So, this option is cute and fun and makes us feel like a sustainable boss, but not very effective on a large scale. It’s just a feel-good start.
  2. Ban plastic straws and have bars/restaurants offer metal or glass straws. This is a good solution for upscale mixologist bars (or good hosts who like to mix up cocktails at home). But that’s where their usefulness ends, unfortunately. They transfer heat, so people with disabilities can’t use them for drinking hot coffee, and also they could be dangerous for people with mobility issues who might not want to have something metal pointed toward the the back of their throat if they suffer from epilepsy. And at lower-end bars or restaurants, I guarantee people will stuff them in their purse to take home.
  3. Ban plastic straws and have bars/restaurants offer paper straws. I used to roll my eyes at people who said paper straws fall apart. They’re so cute! Stop complaining! They’re paper, so you can backyard-compost them! If they get blown into the water, no big deal!  But when I ordered a Moscow Mule at a vegan restaurant last week, 15 minutes in I lost the ability to suck any liquid up. And they still take energy and resources to produce and ship. OK, paper-straw haters, you’re right. I would have preferred to get no straw at all with my cocktail, honestly.
  4. Ban plastic straws and have bars/restaurants offer compostable plastic-like (PLA) straws. At first, this seemed to me like the best solution to the disability question. Plastic-like straws do everything that plastic straws do, except they are not made from petroleum, which lowers their carbon footprint. And they can be composted… in a commercial composting facility. Unfortunately, those are few and far between, and you won’t find them in any tropical island nations filled with straw-happy resorts. And if PLA straws end up in the water, they won’t break down fast enough to not get sucked up a turtle’s nose, so they don’t address the biggest issue. For a city like San Francisco that has a commercial composting facility, though, yes! Require restaurants to only give out compostable straws. But wait… they are most often made from corn. And there are people out there with severe corn allergies. An estimated 10 million, to be more precise. This isn’t going to work for them. OK, what next?
  5. Institute a choice system. This would simply require by law that a server has to ask, “Would you like a straw for your drink?” when taking your order. You could say, “Yes, I would like a plastic straw,” if you need one. This would probably cut down on a lot of straw usage. But what it also does, is put people with disabilities in with the same group of people who don’t give a shit and just have to have their straw (likely the same people who drive SUVs and love a steak dinner in Las Vegas). So when you look around at a restaurant, you might assume that the people with straws are just selfish assholes. People with disabilities are stigmatized enough, without an additional dollop of moralizing heaped on top by the raw-vegan-organic smoothie-shop employee.
  6. Institute an opt-in system. I imagine this is sort of like the service dog system, but without certification. You just say, “I need a plastic straw,” and the server is required to give you one with no questions asked. And restaurants are required to have them in stock right behind the counter. Notice the phrasing here. “I need.” Not, “I want.” This subtle difference in wording, combined with not being offered the choice as a matter of course, will cut down on 99% of the straws being used. Will some assholes say, “I need a plastic straw” when they don’t? Absolutely. Will it be enough of a problem that we need to police that? No. There is potentially a problem of stigmatization as we adjust to this new reality, but eventually it will percolate through society that anyone who is sipping out of a plastic straw probably needs to do so and we should let them have it without making assumptions about whether they care about sea turtles. Or is that a worse kind of stigmatization, in highlighting someone’s disability? Gah! I don’t know!

Ideally, we would test out some combination of #4, #5, and #6 in various cities, and see what gets rid of the most straw waste in the least stigmatizing way for people with disabilities. We’re at the beginning of this movement, so we’ll have to learn and adjust as we go.

So, What Can You Do Now?

  • Whenever you are served a drink with a straw, hand the straw back and say, “This drink doesn’t need a straw. I wish your restaurant/bar asked if I wanted a straw, instead of putting a straw in every drink.” That’s much more forthright and less passive-aggressive than saying, “No straw” when you order, or handing the straw back and rolling your eyes. (To be honest, I’ve done both. I’m trying to up my game, here.) Bonus points if you’re friendly with the manager at your local haunt and can talk to them directly.
  • Advocate for a Straw-on-Request law in your city or state.
  • Advocate for Extended Producer Responsibility. If a company produces straws, they have to be financially and/or physically responsible for what happens to them after. That might mean paying a fee to support the construction of commercial compost facilities for PLA straws, it might mean a deposit system so they have to take them back, it might mean paying a small fee or import duty to defray the cost of landfilling of the plastic straws they produce, it might mean paying a small “plastic straw tax” to island nations who deal with straws on their beaches in order to increase the their price and fund beach cleanups.
  • Make your next bathing suit purchase one made of Econyl, a textile that is produced from old fishing nets. Wait, where did this come from? Straws are a problem, yes, but not the biggest ocean plastic problem. In the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it’s fishing nets that make up almost half of all plastic waste. (h/t Green Indy Blog). Extended producer responsibility might not work here, because fishing nets aren’t branded – they’re created by faceless Asian companies. And I just don’t know enough about modern commercial fishing to know if it’s at all practical to expect fishermen to go back to natural nets. We could all swear off all seafood but bivalves and locally- and line-caught fish, in order to reduce demand for net fishing. But as usual, Asia throws a wrench in this plan, since Asian consumers and fishing fleets are the ones causing most of the devastation. I personally talked to Lima fishermen, a Nicaraguan eco tour guide, and an Ecuadorian eco tour guide, who all shook their head at the impunity of Asian fishing fleets sneaking into supposedly protected areas and scooping up fish, sharks, and turtles. So in this instance, your personal choices aren’t doing much to help this problem. So, that leaves us with one option that hands a bit of agency back to us: helping create a financial incentive for scooping old fishing nets out of the ocean. And a bunch of bathing suit brands in this list are made with Econyl. Get your shop on.
  • Vote in November for your local progressive, and then when we take back the House and Senate, advocate for some aggressive tariffs and fines on Asian fishing fleets that are currently mucking up the entire ocean, and advocate for a nationwide choice or opt-in straw policy.

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