Why We Can't Ban Plastic Straws Completely

Let's not be too hasty in doing away with every single plastic straw. (Photo: Alonso Aguilar/Shutterstock)

The environmental movement of the moment is the elimination of plastic straws. Although they're small, they are mighty in number. About 500,000 million plastic straws are thrown away every day in the United States. Unfortunately, many of them end up as litter in our streets or worse, plastic trash in our oceans. The majority of straws that are properly disposed of end up the landfill, even though they're technically recyclable.

So a movement has been growing to do away with plastic straws, and it's had some success. McDonald's in the U.K. is switching to paper straws. Seattle just enacted a plastic straw ban in the city, along with a ban on plastic utensils. Customers at food service establishments must ask for a straw, and when they are given one, it will be a compostable one. The compostable straws can be either plastic or paper. There is one group that is exception to this rule: Customers who have a medical reason to need a flexible, plastic straw will be provided with one.

Who needs a plastic straw

metal drinking straws
Metal drinking straws, while appropriate for many people, may be too difficult for some people with disabilities to use. (Photo: Elena Vaselova/Shutterstock)

At a recent visit to one of New Jersey's famous diners, my sons and I were presented with our beverages sans straws, along with an additional glass that had three, wrapped plastic straws in it. That way, we could take or leave the straws, and if we left them, they wouldn't have to be thrown away. We left the straws. We don't need a straw to drink from a glass at home, and being in a restaurant doesn't suddenly make us unable to put a glass up to our mouth.

However, there are some people who need plastic straws because straws give them the freedom to drink independently. People with disabilities often need to use straws, as Robyn Powell, a woman with a physical disability that affects her arms and legs, thoughtfully explained in an opinion piece on Huffington Post.

She says she wants to save the environment, but she also wants to be able to drink independently, and a straw allows her to do that. She is someone who is able to use reusable straws at home, but when she's out, she depends on plastic straws. She's concerned that the movement to ban plastic straws that is rapidly picking up speed may leave her with the need to rely on others to help her drink when she's out.

She also notes that for some people, like those with Parkinson's, super sturdy straws like metal or bamboo are dangerous because they're too strong. A paper straw left in liquid a long time can become a soggy, choking hazard for some people.

Not making perfect the enemy of good

drinking, straw
For some people with disabilities, raising a glass to their mouths is difficult or impossible, and a straw allows them to drink without assistance from someone else. (Photo: JJFarq/Shutterstock)

Powell advocates that until an acceptable alternative to the plastic straw is created, it's appropriate for those with disabilities to have bendable, plastic straws available to them on demand. Jessica Grono, a woman with cerebral palsy explains on Cerebral Palsy News Today that although she fully understands why fewer plastic straws are important to the environment, we need to consider people first. She, too, would like to see them available on demand for those who truly need them.

What I'm seeing as I'm reading pieces by those with disabilities is a simple, reasonable request. Please don't do away completely with plastic straws. There are many people who rely on them, and they should be made available to them. The goal should not be the perfect elimination of plastic straws where none are ever manufactured or used. The goal should be for those who don't need a plastic straw to not use them, and those who need them — whether permanently or temporarily — to have easy access to them. That works for everyone, although people with disabilities don't need the approval of others for them to have the right to be as independent as possible.

As plastic straw bans continue to gain momentum, it should be emphasized that ban only unnecessary plastic straws is what's needed, not all plastic straws.