Reducing waste by banning plastic straws shouldn't come at the expense of accessibility

There are many people with disabilities, as well as children and the elderly, who need to use straws on a daily basis. At the moment, plastic single-use straws are their best option.

Single-use plastic straws are currently the best option available to people with certain disabilities

There are many people with disabilities, as well as children and the elderly, who need to use straws on a daily basis. At the moment, plastic single-use straws are their best option. (Dmitry Galaganov/Shutterstock)

There's a group of people whose needs are often overlooked when we talk about banning single-use plastic straws: people with disabilities. 

These are people who rely on using plastic straws on a daily basis — people like myself, a Canadian thalidomide survivor born with essentially no arms, for whom holding any cup or glass is virtually impossible. Experience has shown me that a bendable straw is the only safe method. And considering our country is aging, there will be more and more people who will suffer with conditions such as arthritis, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, with which gripping cups becomes quite difficult. Again, having bendable straws easily accessible will be vital.

Britain is poised to ban the sale of single-use plastic straws. Cities such as New York and Seattle have plans to join in with related policies. And here in Canada, companies such as as A&W have announced that they will eliminate plastic straws, while municipalities such as Vancouver move ahead with city-wide legislation.  

The cause is a noble one; I don't think there is any disputing the fact that the world needs less plastic waste being thrown out and ending up in our landfills or in our oceans. But the thinking that this is the way to do it overstates how much of that waste is due to single-use plastic straws. The fact is, only a tiny percentage of plastic waste that ends up in our oceans, for example, is due to straws. But for many disabled people, the availability and use of a plastic straw is vital for their independence and safety.

It is often difficult for disabled people to admit they need to use devices or adaptations, because it is just another sign that they have less independence than non-disabled people. But in my case, this striving to shun adaptations has come at a price: when I have chosen to not use a straw, I have often spilled sticky orange juice or hot tea on my chest.

Alternatives to plastic straws

There are alternatives to single-use plastic straws: metal straws, bamboo straws, glass straws, paper straws and so forth. But what people don't realize is that many of these alternatives are unsuitable. 

Without plastic straws available at restaurants, I will have to think ahead each time I go out and bring reusable straws with me, though carrying them around can be a burden. They also need to be washed immediately after use to prevent bacteria growth.

Metal straws get extremely hot if you are drinking coffee or hot tea, potentially causing lip burns. Glass straws are even more dangerous, especially to someone who has a disability that causes clenching of teeth, which could mean a mouth full of glass shards. Paper straws that have a waxy coating will melt if used for hot liquid.

Silicone straws are a possible option, but they require thorough cleaning immediately after use, which is not ideal if a person is travelling or has limited hand mobility to use a tiny brush to clean inside. On top of it all, the cost of these straws versus plastic straws is often out of reach for disabled people who are often on a fixed budget.

Metal straws can get extremely hot if you are drinking coffee or hot tea and potentially cause lip burns. (Roger Corriveau/CBC)

The problem isn't really with personal usage: one straw per day thrown into a residential garbage can pales in comparison to the thousands of straws tossed out at fast food restaurants. If municipalities are so keen on reducing plastic waste, they should start with those establishments that give a straw with every drink they sell.

Instead of offering them to every customer by default, they should simply ask the person purchasing a drink if he or she would like a straw. Having a supply of single-use plastic straws on hand for those who require them — which is what some businesses have said they plan on doing — would not be too onerous.

Canadians need to realize that there are many people with disabilities, as well as some children and the elderly, who need to use straws on a daily basis. At the moment, plastic single-use straws are their best option. Until a suitable alternative is introduced, we should not live with the fear that we will no longer have access to this simple aid. Unfortunately, since there is such a mishmash of proposed policies and bans, many in the disabled community are starting to hoard their plastic bendy straws for fear they will not be manufactured in the future.

There is something wrong with an outlook where the big picture is so big, the people in need are overlooked. Reducing plastic waste is great, but doing it at the expense of accessibility is not. 

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Susan Wagner-White is a Canadian thalidomide survivor, a pen and ink pointillist artist with over 60 pieces sold worldwide, an advocate for others within the thalidomide community, and a sometimes-writer.


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