Why It's Ableist to Ban the Plastic Straw

Cocktails with plastic straws at wedding reception

We interrupt our regular talks of love, sex and weddings to discuss an issue that has been boiling my blood for several months: the banishment of the plastic straw. You’ve probably seen the horrific video of the sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose that has been circling social media. It’s been viewed over 30 million times. You may have heard that by year 2020 Starbucks will be eliminating all plastic straws from its 30,000 locations worldwide and replacing them with compostable and biodegradable alternatives. If you live in the UK, Seattle, Miami Beach, San Francisco, or New York you may have even been to a restaurant that has jumped on the plastic straw ban bandwagon. While the plastic straw ban was a well-intentioned response to an increasing plastic pollution crisis, the debates and discussion are a prime example of weak activism and ableist bullshit.  

The debate about the plastic straw should have stopped the first time a person with a disability said, “Wait a minute… I need a plastic straw to drink.” Environmentalists should have apologized and moved on to the next issue, one that probably would have a greater impact on the plastic pollution crisis. However, months later, the disabled are still fighting to be heard on social media and at city council meetings across the globe.

People have been shamed at restaurants by “woke” waitstaff that guilt customers into not using a straw. Or that one co-worker that says, “You know they make reusable straws you can just bring with you.” Really? I literally drink everything with a straw, even hot soup. I know of the alternatives to the single-use plastic straw. I’ve even tried most of them and they all suck. (No pun intended!)

People with disabilities know what they need. They can even ask for it! And when we do, we get smiles, pats on the head and comments, “to be patient and grateful.” We fight for equal access, universal healthcare, and community integration; we fight against societal ignorance and employment discrimination. It’s exhausting. Access to straws should be the least of our worries and yet here we are: fighting for the ability to drink.

For people with disabilities, straws are essential for hydration. Currently, the alternatives to the single-use plastic straw are not effective in meeting the varied needs of people with a variety of disabilities. Paper straws are flimsy, easy to bite, don’t bend and disintegrate fast, especially in soda, alcoholic, and hot beverages. Paper straws also have an effect on taste. Straws made from metal and glass are a tooth-chipping hazard, aren’t flexible and are expensive. Metal straws are also a burning hazard when used in hot drinks and soups.

The single-use plastic straw is not only functional but also sanitary. Reusable straws are very hard to clean and grow mold easily, putting people with weakened immune systems especially at risk, even when using a special cleaning brush. Would you want to rely on someone else to clean your reusable straw in a public restroom between drinks? I doubt it. Would you want to carry around a straw in your lint-filled purse? What happens if you forget? People with disabilities use straws to be independent, eliminating straws from the marketplace will have dire consequences for the people that need them.

But what makes the straw bans so infuriating is that it will have such a little impact on our environment. By weight, straws only make up .03% of the plastic in our ocean. Not 3% — .03%. Let that sink in for a minute. If we eliminated every plastic straw in the entire ocean, we’d barely be making a dent in fixing the problem. Environmental activists are hoping that banning straws will bring awareness to the Texas-size garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean and people will cut down on all the other plastic products we use everyday. But let’s be real, the plastic straw ban is really just weak activism. It allows people to pat themselves on the back for making very little effort.

If we really wanted to make strides in reducing the amount of plastic in our oceans we should pick a cause that’s actually impactful AND not overly burdensome on people with disabilities. For example, fishing nets make up over 45% of the plastic in the ocean. Remember that sea turtle with a straw in its nose? Take a look at this. Let’s lobby the fishing industry to do better. Or perhaps reduce our usage of plastic bags, food containers, and bottles by taxing them and using the revenue to invest in creating biodegradable alternatives. Instead, we picked something that was too easy and attacked people with disabilities for needing a plastic straw to drink. Hopefully, this is the last straw in the debate.

If you are a regular reader of my column, you may recall I suggested you should provide paper straws for disabled guests at your wedding events in a previous post. Paper straws are better than no straws at all. However, please be highly aware that these will not work for everyone, which is why I have focused this post on the single-use plastic variety.

Rebecca Anger


Rebecca Anger is a disabled social activist and an aspiring attorney in Chicago, focusing on health and civil rights law. When she is not fighting injustice, she likes to cook and create new recipes and spend time with her husband.  

Find Rebecca on Instagram @reebs8416