A couple of days ago, I wrote a post on Facebook (replicated here) which was shared around a lot. About three quarters of the comments were, irritatingly, people saying some variation of ‘but you get reusable straws’. Of the remaining quarter, there were a handful of people saying they’d learned something, a fair bit of abuse and then a lot of people people asking ‘so what do you suggest?’
So here is my untested, offhand set of suggestions based on what I’ve read, what research I’ve seen, etc.
First, a note on why bans are harmful even when medical necessity exceptions are made:
In articles about Seattle, it says that, if a person asks for a straw they should be given a compostable one. Further down, it says some plastic straws will be available for people with a medical need.
The problem with this is ‘who gets to decide what a medical need is?’ When measures like this are introduced, it creates a cultural effect where people feel they are justified in policing people’s use of facilities available for medical need. Most disabled people who use accessible facilities right now – accessible toilets, accessible parking, etc – already have to deal with all the people who take it upon themselves to demand proof of need, or to yell at you for not being disabled enough to need those resources.
By using the language and protocols of a ‘ban’, even with exemptions, the society is giving licence to people to act in these ways. And those examples are ones where there isn’t a physical person between you and the accessible thing every time you need to use it – you submit your proof and get a blue badge, but you don’t need to have a person assess whether or not you’re *allowed* to use a space every time you park. The vast, vast, vast majority of people who will be tasked with making these decisions will not have enough understanding of the variability of disability to make those decisions based on reason. They’re going to be deciding based on biases and assumptions, and that almost always goes badly for us. Having to decide whether you can deal with the risk of humiliation every time you want a drink is exhausting and excluding.
We have to stop using language which emboldens the people who are already making our lives harder. It isn’t up to an untrained, minimum wage server to make an assessment of whether or not our medical needs are legitimate enough to be granted a straw.
So, what to do? Here is my three-pronged approach.
First: instead of a ban, we mandate that businesses must offer a range of options – at the very least offer paper/compostable straws alongside plastic. Instead of handing them out to everyone, and instead of putting the onus on disabled people to risk the confrontations above, servers should just ask if the person would like a straw. Most people will say no, but if they say yes, offer the different options including plastic. Once the new designs (see second point) are available, phase those into this stage.
Second: in the immediate future, we begin a design programme, open to anyone but particularly targeting design schools, technical colleges, etc. We give them a brief to design a range of straw replacements which, when used as a set, meet the needs of both consumers and environmental needs. It could be a better designed compostable straw, a way of recycling straws, a range of straws for different types of use.
The ones which apply with proposals which seem plausible, we fund their research and design up to an agreed price (including wages, obviously). We pay for this by getting corporations involved – it’d be great if we didn’t have to, but it’s the most obvious interim solution. They offer sponsorship and (possibly), say, a year’s paid placement in their research and development departments if their final design is chosen. In return, the companies can use that as a tax write-off, and their logos will be on the final design branding for a year or whatever.
Once you have a final design, the designers keep the intellectual property, but for two years the price to market is kept low to facilitate uptake across the country.
As it turns out, whatever is developed will almost certainly be applicable far beyond just straws.
Third: we increase and maintain pressure on corporations and governments to deal with plastic waste in better ways. The reality is that much of the plastic waste in the oceans comes from a few countries and since it’s pretty hypocritical of developed countries to say to developing countries that now we’ve reaped the benefits of rampant industrialisation, they have to not do the same thing because now we’re suddenly worried about the environment. This means that it’s on us to distribute some of that wealth by funding (not loaning – funding) systems for waste management, recycling, etc. Trash wheels in the major rivers, aiding in infrastructure development to move waste to managed landfill, etc. It means pressuring our governments to stop seeing any of this as a country by country issue. Climate change affects all of us, so it’s up to us to help where we can. Realistically, straws are a minute fraction of the waste which needs to be dealt with, and it’s only at the transnational level that real change will happen.
Disability activists still usually care deeply about the environment. We’re not arguing against straw bans just because we don’t want to be inconvenienced. What we want is for people to use their energy to make real, lasting changes which do not unfairly disadvantage already marginalised people. The future has to be accessible, or what kind of world are we bothering to create?