What Plastic Activists Need to Know About Disability Justice

by Guest Blogger

July 26, 2018

Guest blogger Rev. Theresa I. Soto breaks down how our movements can approach the single-use plastic crisis while lifting up multi-issue lives.

Lilac Vylette Maldonado contributed the illustration for this blog and is a community organizer and artivist who identifies as a nonbinary, queer, disabled, chronically ill, and neurodivergent Chicanx femme. Lilac uses the neutral pronouns they/them.

A tiny seahorse riding a cotton swab or a turtle getting a plastic straw extracted from its nose reminds people of some of the things at stake in the single-use plastics struggle. Disability rights activists have been persistently advocating that when it comes to banning single-use plastic straws, the reminders are incomplete. In fact, some people with disabilities rely on plastic straws for their survival.

As soon as this comes up, people who are working, fighting, long-time laboring for the preservation of the planet are likely to offer that there are many biodegradable or trash-reducing alternatives.

“Have you tried paper, aluminum, silicone, glass…?”

It helps to stop and consider what’s at stake, very simply this:

All of us need all of us to make it.

One of the flaws of the straw problem being described as a debate is that it makes two camps: straw users and non-straw users. This structure and language push people with disabilities into a category of plastic lovers, inattentive to the burden they put on the environment, as many other good people struggle to save the planet.

People with disabilities are not enemies of the environment. One of the questions

Writer: (On left) Rev. Theresa I. Soto is a Unitarian Universalist minister and liberation worker. Illustrator: (On right) Lilac Vylette Maldonado contributed the illustration for this blog and is a community organizer and artivist

environmental movements are faced with at this time is this:

When movements (unintentionally) embrace solutions that leave people behind, what should a justice-based response be?

Our movements well know that we do not lead single-issue lives, an acknowledgment we learn from ancestor Audre Lorde. That is, the same people who are harmed by straw bans that eliminate a simple but urgent tool for access are also deeply affected by environmental degradation, affected by the environment being sold to the highest bidder.

Sharon Shapiro-Lacks, the Executive Director of Yad HaChazakah, The Jewish Disability Empowerment Center suggests having a supply of bendable plastic straws within reach for those who need that specific accommodation. She offers that if there is a supply of good quality paper straws for everyone else who might want them, people will rarely select plastic straws.

This kind of solution deconstructs the idea that there are only two camps in the struggle to eliminate single-use plastics. It matters what the alternatives to plastic are for people with disabilities. It matters that the alternatives to plastic be safe. For instance, are the paper and inks used in paper straws actually safe for people to put in their mouths? We can be advocates for the success of solutions that bring everyone along, and that continue to decrease our reliance on single-use plastic.

Straws only comprise .03% of the plastic in the ocean. That doesn’t mean that movements shouldn’t turn their attention to straws. Rather, it means that if we use methods that rely on leadership by those the most impacted, we will be leading across movements in ways that leave room for nuanced solutions. As Boots Riley says, “We need a new equation.”

Corporations are not doing nearly enough to tackle the crisis they helped create. It’s up to all of us to continue building the world we want to see by demanding real solutions from the world’s largest companies.

Rev. Theresa I. Soto is a Unitarian Universalist minister and liberation worker. Theresa identifies as Latinx, non-binary queer, and disabled, all of these all the time. They believe in the abilities of movements to increase their inclusivity as we move toward solutions.

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