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An Argument for Plastic Straws: Eco-Ableism and Its Effects

Since the introduction of the plastic straw ban in cities such as Seattle, Oakland, and New York City, there has been a lot of buzz in the environmental justice community surrounding the topic of single-use plastics. However, while these changes may mean progress in reducing waste for many climate activists, disabled individuals were not considered in this discussion. In general, the disabled community is rarely mentioned in the conversation on climate and environmental justice; not only are their needs overlooked when it comes to the availability of single-use plastics, but also in natural disaster evacuation preparation and within the healthcare system during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite being one of the most vulnerable groups disproportionately affected by environmental issues, the disabled community is put at risk time and time again through others’ lack of consideration—contributing even further to the broader issue of general inaccessibility. 

Eco-ableism is when our approaches to environmental activism end up hurting disabled people… Eco-ableism is not a form of individual sin, but one way in which we can unintentionally reproduce the social devaluing of disabled lives.

Andrei Mihail

A key term to understand when discussing the intersectionality of climate justice and disability rights is eco-ableism. Ableism refers to “discrimination and social prejudice against disabled people” and exists on both systemic and individual levels. Eco-ableism occurs when disabled individuals are left out of the discussion on environmental efforts. This can manifest in various ways, ranging from the demonization of the use of plastic straws in society to the disregard for the disabled community in the development and implementation of environmental legislation. One cannot call themselves a true advocate of environmental justice if one ignores the exclusion of disabled voices. 

(The disabled community) isn’t trying to be anti-environment. We’re just protecting disabled people.”

Daniel Gilbert

Those who were alive before the invention of plastic straws can still remember the dangers that came with drinking. A lot of disabled individuals would unintentionally breathe while using traditional tools and end up with food or drink in their lungs. People who have muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy may not have the strength or coordination to pick up a cup. Those who use a wheelchair rely on plastic straws to drink while moving around. Many other disabled individuals rely on the use of plastic straws, including those with muscle spasms, partial or full paralysis, temperature sensitivities, or little energy throughout the day. Plastic straws provide an efficient combination of strength, flexibility, and temperature resistance that make them a life-saving accommodation for many disabled people.

Requiring people with disabilities to treat a routine fast food trip as something that requires planning and supplies is an unplanned failure in equity.

Diability Rights Washington

Many companies offer alternatives to plastic straws, but these alternatives can be harmful to the disabled community. Metal, glass, silicon, and paper straws all come with their own risks and potential dangers. Metal straws conduct both heat and cold, making them difficult to use for individuals who have temperature sensitivities. Both metal and glass straws could cause serious harm to the user if they were to bite down suddenly. When someone has a muscle spasm that causes them to involuntarily contract their jaw, they tend to bite down with full force; if they are using a metal or glass straw when this occurs, they can severely damage their teeth or injure the inside of their mouth. These kinds of straws are also inflexible and cannot be positioned. Silicone straws pose an allergy risk and can be difficult to clean. Most of the popular food alternatives, wheat or pasta straws, pose an allergy risk and get soggy and lose their shape within a couple of hours (depending on the kind). Similarly, paper straws are also nowhere near sturdy enough and pose a risk of deteriorating when they’re left in a drink for too long, which can lead to a choking hazard. Many paper straws contain gluten, another allergy risk, and are not reliable or positionable. On top of it all, most of these alternatives are very difficult and time-consuming to clean, something a lot of disabled individuals don’t have the energy, or sometimes even the ability, to do. Not to mention that if someone forgot to bring their reusable straw with them, they would be unable to drink anything, which is a luxury that non-disabled individuals tend to take for granted. 

Within the movement, zero waste leaders and lifestyle followers must learn to diversify the narrative surrounding the environment and waste. This means listening to the voices of individuals with disabilities and incorporating ideas and designs that benefit all humans.”

Alexandra Aladham

By putting all of the pressure of climate change and the environmental movement on plastic bans, we are ignoring the biggest threat to the environment: big companies. There are several major corporations that are responsible for causing most of the pollution in the world. Yet, instead of focusing on changing government policy, the responsibility is put on individuals. As written by Sadie Baker-Wacks in her article about eco-ableism, “Any environmentalism that claims individual lifestyle changes are the only way to combat climate change is ableist.” Sustainable living is not something that is realistic for a lot of the population, as only those who have enough money and time possess the ability to pursue this lifestyle. It is especially unrealistic for those who are disabled and rely on single-use plastics in order to live. The only way to truly make an impact in the environmental movement is to hold corporations responsible and to include disabled people in the discussion. It can not be considered environmental justice if the movement perpetuates the marginalization of the disabled community by disregarding their needs and experiences.

Listed below are some resources from where you can learn more about eco-ableism and disability rights and how to help the cause:

Articles:

Eco-Ableism in the Zero Waste Movement

Eco-Ableism in the Environmental Justice Movement 

It’s Time to Recognize Climate Change as a Disability Rights Issue

A Call for Climate Action

Organizations:

Disability Rights Washington

National Disability Rights Network

Disability Rights Fund

Global Greengrants Fund 

National Council on Disability

Averielle (pronounced like av-ree-el) is a senior at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, studying Asian Studies and Cultural Anthropology. Her passions lie in traveling and learning about other cultures and languages, and in her free time she enjoys drawing, journaling, and hanging out with her cats :)
Kaitlyn Russo

Rutgers '23

Kaitlyn is a senior at Rutgers University studying Korean and Elementary Special Education. In her free time, she enjoys baking and hanging out with her pet hamster, Penelope.