Plastic straw problems require community collaboration

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Ameena Golding/Staff

One day, you’re at a restaurant, and you ask for some water. After you get it, you ask for a straw. Not for any particular reason — it’s just that you like the comfort of having one in your drink. Careless waste and a need for comfort like this have led to the plastic crisis we are now experiencing.

Lately, many environmentalists have focused on getting plastic straws banned. And in many cases, they’ve been successful. San Francisco recently announced a full straw ban, and Berkeley may soon follow suit. In addition, the city of Berkeley is trying to achieve zero waste by 2020. Oakland is considering only allowing straws upon request — something California state lawmakers are also considering passing as a statewide law. In the private sector, Starbucks and Ikea, along with a few different airlines, recently announced that they will be reducing their plastic use.

The anti-plastic straw movement is so popular that Aardvark, which produces many of the paper straws used in the Bay Area, has seen a 5,000 percent increase in its sales.

The reason so many environmentalists are against straws is because they’re actually tiny menaces; making up 7 percent of the plastics thrown away globally, they’re something many of us could easily live without.

For some people, though, this isn’t a choice. These people have been voicing their concerns about the new movement to ban plastic straws. For some disabled people, straws are a necessity that they rely on. Sometimes, they don’t have the strength to lift glasses to their mouths — and if they do, they run the risk of choking. Other straw alternatives often don’t work for them, for various reasons. People argue that banning straws has a small impact on the environment, but a large impact on them.

Let’s look at the facts, starting with the environmentalists.

We’ve all seen the awful image of a turtle with a straw stuck in its nose. Images such as this one made a lot of us question our actions, and for good reason. Strawless Ocean lists some terrible, but true, facts about plastic, including that “an estimated 71% of seabirds and 30% of turtles have been found with plastics in their stomachs. When they ingest plastic, marine life has a 50% mortality rate.” Straws, and plastic in general, are poison to marine life.

Getting into the specifics of why plastic straws are bad, the site notes that “straws are among the top 10 items found during beach cleanups.” A part of this problem is that plastic doesn’t simply go away. It takes centuries to decompose, which means that every piece of plastic ever created is still in existence.

One in five Americans has a disability (although that doesn’t mean that one in five needs plastic straws). Many, many disabilities require the use of plastic straws. One such disability is muscular dystrophy, which causes muscles to progressively deteriorate. Another example is Larsen syndrome, a disorder that affects the development of bones. Cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, Down syndrome, arthrogryposis, motor planning delays and autism — all of these disabilities can sometimes necessitate the use of plastic straws. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires businesses to accommodate themselves for disabled people. Title III of the act directs businesses to make “reasonable modifications” to their usual ways of doing things when serving people with disabilities. This would mean that businesses must offer plastic straws to people who need them. The reason for the necessity of these plastic straws is that other alternatives don’t always work. Metal ones can get too hot or too cold, paper ones can dissolve (and they often aren’t that environmentally friendly), rice/pasta ones can bring allergy concerns, etc. People with disabilities don’t hate the environment; they just want smarter solutions.

So, what is the smart solution to this? The first step is to have honest and civil discussions about what to do. We have to also acknowledge that things must change. We can’t keep living our wasteful life, and we can’t keep doing things that hurt people. We also can’t keep making decisions about people without consulting said people. Working on a permanent solution is key. Doctors, disabled people, engineers, scientists, policymakers and environmentalists must all come together.

Another genuine problem in all of this is that many restaurants and shops in the Bay Area currently need plastic straws for their business. Boba/bubble tea is an example of this; many other straw alternatives, such as metal and paper, simply wouldn’t work for it. A proposed alternative is that there could be a tax on plastic straws, similar to the tax on plastic bags. Prices ranging upward of $2 could seriously deter a customer; and if a disabled person requests a straw, they will likely receive one for free.

Going from here, the solution seems to be three-pronged.

Those who are able to drink without using plastic straws must stop using them.

We must enact policy, both in government and business, that limits the use of plastic straws, except to those people who need them. This could consist of requiring people to ask for straws.

Alternatives to plastic must continue to be developed, and the disabled community must help. Ideally, we will be able to ban all plastic straws while also having an alternative that works.

Let’s work together on this.

Jake Zaleski is a high school student and environmental activist.