#SuckItAbleism / On Not Going Plastic-Free

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:

  1. Establish a steering group
  2. Have the local council declare a resolution to support the campaign
  3. Inspire the wider community to engage with the plastic-free message
  4. Hold plastic-free rallies such as clean-ups
  5. 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 infographic shows a drawing of a pink/purple narwhal, a bendy straw, three question marks, and an image of the globe. The text says, “How do plastic straw bans hurt disabled people? Many disabled people need plastic straws to eat and drink. It provides access and they are literally keeping some of us alive! We don’t hate the earth, but we really like being alive and able to access our communities!” This text is followed by bullet points saying, Paper and biodegradable straws break down faster than many of us can use them. Metal straws can cause injury if they are too hot or cold and also if the person has a disability that affects movement and motor skills. Reusable straws are great if you have the ability to wash, store and bring them with you every time you leave your house. Many disabled people do not. If you don’t need a plastic straw, then don’t use one, but you don’t need to hurt disabled people to show that you love the earth. Punishing disabled people who need plastic straws to live will have very little impact on the environment but looking into creating a more viable and ACCESSIBLE alternative to single use plastic and placing greater regulations on businesses that are polluting the earth on a much larger, much more dangerous scale sure would! At the bottom of the infographic is the web link (not clickable in the infographic) for neurodiversitylibrary.org ”How Poorly Considered Straw Bans Hurt Disabled People

This chart made by @rollwthepunches shows the problems with alternatives to plastic straws, and that none of them are safe for the masses:

This is an image of a spreadsheet chart entitled “Just use blank fill in the word space straws.” Along the left side there is column listing materials straws may be made out of. Across the top row are columns titled each with a barrier or problem. Each category of straw material has an x in the column of barrier depending on which barrier is relevant to that material. Metal straws have allergy risk, injury risk, not positionable, not hot liquid safe, hard to sanitize, and high cost marked as barriers. Paper straws have allergy risk, chocking hazard, not positionable, not hot liquid safe, and dissolve with long use marked as barriers. Glass straws have injury risk, not positionable, hard to sanitize, and high cost marked as barriers. Silicone straws have allergy risk, not positionable, hard to sanitize, and high cost marked as barriers. Acrylic straws have allergy risk, injury risk, not positionable, not hot liquid safe, hard to sanitize, and high cost marked as barriers. Pasta or rice straws have allergy risk, chocking hazard, injury risk, not positionable, not hot liquid safe, and dissolve with long use marked as barriers. Bamboo straws have allergy risk, injury risk, not positionable, and high cost marked as barriers. Biodegradable straws have allergy risk, choking hazard, not hot liquid safe, and dissolve with long use marked as barriers. Single use straws are have no barriers marked. Undearneath the chart is a text that reads “Many disabled individuals require straws for foods, meds, and to be social with friends. We can ALL reduce plastic use, but banning items many depend on harms a very vulnerable population. Pressure companies to make safe alternatives available to all and reduce waste in larger ways. Hurt turtles are devastating. So are children and adults aspirating liquid into their lungs.” At the very bottom it is signed by “Hell on Wheels” with a burning yellow flame in front and the blue icon of a wheelchair stick figure at the end.

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:





4 thoughts on “#SuckItAbleism / On Not Going Plastic-Free

  1. I think people who are fighting for the straw ban are very unaware of all the other single use plastic that comes with some disabilities… I have a feeding tube which means single use, mixed material feed bags, plastic single use tubing and so on. If the discussion was really about helping the environment then straws would just be a foot note in it…

    1. Thanks! glad it was useful.

      I keep thinking I should an an addendum now single-used plastic is making its medical uses so widely known but I don’t have the heart for it right now!

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