There is currently a campaign running to seek Plastic Free Community status for Grasmere, the village in the English Lake District where I live.
The campaign largely follows the guidelines laid out by Surfers against Sewage, who have an accreditation scheme which asks communities to aim for 5 objectives:
- Establish a steering group
- Have the local council declare a resolution to support the campaign
- Inspire the wider community to engage with the plastic-free message
- Hold plastic-free rallies such as clean-ups
- Work with local businesses to help them reduce single-use plastics
On the whole, I’m totally in support of any movement to reduce waste, and especially to address the amount of rubbish which ends up in our hedgerows and water systems. The Lake District is strewn with dog poo bags, empty cans and bottles, and abandoned fishing tackle, all of which are hazardous to wildlife, human life and the entire ecosystem.
However, I am wary of anything that calls for a total ban on single-use plastics, not least because of the links between plastic-free campaigns and the banning of plastic straws.
A lot has already been written about how straw bans negatively impact disabled people’s ability to be socially independent and endanger disabled lives, but it seems many people still don’t know the facts.
I love this infographic by neurodiversitylibrary.org, which is both cute and to the point. The fundamental message is clear:
You don’t need to hurt disabled people to show that you love the earth.
This chart made by @rollwthepunches shows the problems with alternatives to plastic straws, and that none of them are safe for the masses:
These dangers can no longer in any way be dismissed as hypothetical, after the death of Elena Struthers-Gardner when she fell on a metal straw.
Many outlets have already switched to using paper straws here in the UK, even though a ban on plastic straws is not yet in place.
Did you know that many biodegradable, compostable and paper straws contain common allergens in their glue and their coatings, including gluten?
I didn’t, although my stomach and bathroom have become quite familiar with it in recent months. Because straws aren’t considered a food stuff, their allergen content does not need to be listed, which is pretty terrifying for anyone with an auto-immunue condition like Coeliac disease, an intolerance or an allergy. A paper straw in a cafe could be a death sentence for a customer who has anaphylactic reactions to an unlisted ingredient. No one should have to worry about that.
Having plastic straws only available on request to disabled people is also not a solution. It forces people to disclose their disability under intimidating circumstances, to untrained adjudicators. People working in cafes and restaurants shouldn’t have to decide whether someone is deserving of a straw.
We live in a society that isn’t very understanding of disability. Under the hashtag #SuckItAbleism – coined by Alice Wong – you can read some of the deeply distressing accounts of disabled people in places where straws have already been banned who have been refused them by servers in restaurants and cafes because they ‘don’t look disabled’, or who have been harassed and bullied for asking for them.
If you are still thinking but surely saving the world is more important than a few disabled people’s social lives, think again …
Banning plastic straws is already harming disabled people whilst simultaneously not saving the earth.
The recent fact check by Channel 4 news shows that the proposed straw ban in the UK is based on made up data, and not on evidence. Plastic straws have been found to make up a miniscule proportion of ocean waste.
Globally, straws only make up around 0.00002 per cent of all marine plastic pollution.
If you want to make a real difference, target something that isn’t an accessibility aid but does contribute substantially to pollution.
Is it more important to appear to be saving the environment, or to actually help to protect the lives and independence of disabled people?
This is a call for environmental campaigners everywhere to join with disabled people in saying #SuckItAbleism.
Some helpful resources to read and share:
This blog post by Shona Louise gathers information from many sources and demonstrates how alternatives to plastic straws are not suitable for many disabled people: http://www.shonalouise.com/2018/11/the-plastic-straw-ban-how-it-harms.html
As does this article by disabled environmentalist Penny Pepper: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jul/09/disabled-person-plastic-straws-baby-wipes
There is a really good, clear interview about why some people need straws and some of the alternatives here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/disability-48107572
The infographics I’ve used are gathered here: