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Greenpeace have been campaigning to raise awareness of the harmful impact plastics have on our oceans for several years: from microbeads to single-use plastics such as bottles, bags and straws. Nonetheless, it’s fair to say that the horrifying scenes captured by Sir David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet 2’ showcased the hazards faced by marine life, and intensified the momentum behind such campaigns.
In responding to public concerns, a number of transport providers, cinema and restaurant chains and sports venues have, understandably, committed to phasing out the provision of plastic straws. A few companies have replaced plastic straws with paper or metal alternatives, whereas some are withdrawing all straws from public display until a suitable alternative is sourced, or withdrawing straws altogether.
As politicians in Westminster and Holyrood look to exercise their clout in the anti-plastics debate, it’s important that we consider the wider implications of a ban, particularly for disabled people, as we move towards eradicating single-use plastic straws.
The average plastic straw is cheap, flexible, can be used for drinking cold and hot beverages, and is readily available. For some disabled people these attributes are vital for independent living. It’s important to note that the umbrella of ‘disability’ includes people with different needs and impairments, and that it’s the universal accessibility of the plastic straw that makes so many disabled people anxious about an outright ban.
Disabled people can take longer to drink; therefore, a soggy paper straw increases the risk of choking. Most paper and silicone alternatives are not flexible, and this is an important feature for people with mobility related impairments. Metal, glass and bamboo straws present obvious dangers for people who have difficulty controlling their bite, as well as those with neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s. Some disabled people use straws when drinking coffee or eating soup, yet most of the alternatives, including the leading biodegradable straw, are not suitable for drinks over 40°C. In addition, re-useable straws in public places are not always hygienic or easy to clean – would you drink through a straw that’s been passed around the public?
One of the most common rebuttals from non-disabled people is that disabled people should just bring their own straw. Think about that for a moment. In addition to our Blue Badge, medicines, bank card and phone, we must also remember to carry a straw at all times just in case we get thirsty?
Then there is the cost. According to Scope, disabled people in the UK already face extra costs of £570 a month related to their impairment or condition. Passing yet another cost onto disabled people isn’t suitable if you accept that society bears a responsibility to make the world more accessible for everyone. After all, environmental justice without social justice isn’t justice at all.
What can we do?
I’m part of a disability rights group, One in Five, that is calling on manufacturers to produce an environmentally friendly flexible non-plastic straw that is suitable for hot and cold drinks – and we need support from non-disabled people too. When companies are discussing their needs with suppliers, they’re unlikely to buy four or five different straws; therefore we need a universal solution.
During an episode of BBC One’s The One Show last month, the Managing Director of Iceland Foods, Richard Walker, exhibited a clear, paper-based and recyclable alternative to the plastic film that covers many of their frozen meals. Although it’s still in the developmental stages, this demonstrates that companies will respond to consumer demands and that an environmentally friendly straw that meets the needs of disabled people and doesn’t pollute our oceans is not beyond our capabilities.
I think it’s important to point out that in the last few weeks, not one disabled person I’ve discussed this topic with is against the principle of banning unnecessary single-use plastics. In fact, many of the disability rights activists I know also champion animal rights and the need to protect our environment for future generations.
As we move to ridding our oceans, beaches and parks of unnecessary single-use plastics, disabled people shouldn’t be used as a scapegoat by large corporations, or governments, unwilling to push suppliers and manufacturers to produce a better solution. Instead, we must all work together to demand an environmentally friendly solution that meets all our needs, including those of disabled people.
Jamie Szymkowiak is the co-Founder of One in Five, a Scottish disability rights organisation. You can read more info at www.oneinfive.scot.