13 Apr The UK’s Plastic Straw Ban: Keeping persons with disabilities in mind
The debate about the potential ban on plastic straws in the UK isn’t just about straws and the materials they’re made from. What it does is highlight a much larger issue regarding inclusivity and diversity in decision making. There is a profound need for policy makers, innovators, entrepreneurs and designers to create solutions that put persons with disabilities first, enabling the creation of more inclusive and equitable societies.
Since Blue Planet II aired back in November, the issue of plastic pollution has been brought to the forefront of social consciousness, and has subsequently risen up the political agenda.
Much of this public attention has focused on the elimination of four single use plastic items; disposable coffee cups, plastic bags, water bottles and straws. Last month, Buckingham Palace announced that plastic straws and bottles would be banned on the Queen’s Royal Estates, and the Scottish Government is set to become the first UK nation to ban plastic straws entirely, which it intends to do by 2019. Numerous cafes and restaurant chains have also announced plans to ban straws in their stores by the end of the year, with many independent bars and restaurants already taking action.
The Marine Conservation Society estimates that the UK uses 8.5 billion straws every year, and according to the campaign group, Refuse The Straw, plastic straws take over 200 years to break down.
Although most people seem to be in agreement that a UK wide ban would be a good thing (most notably Environment Secretary Michael Gove), the needs of persons with disabilities who rely on plastic straws to drink are not being taken into consideration. What many have failed to do, including Gove, is acknowledge that avoiding plastic isn’t always easy – and for persons with disabilities who depend on plastic products
like straws for fluid intake, it’s entirely impossible.
Michaela Hollywood is just one example. Back in January, Hollywood, who has a rare muscle wasting condition, stated in the Huffington Post that “ in a world without straws, I’m not entirely sure if I’d even be alive… I definitely cannot lift a glass of water, a cup of tea, or a bottle of juice to my mouth and drink normally. Even if I could, I’d likely choke, causing the drink to get into my lungs and causing an aspiration pneumonia.”
Whilst there are alternatives to plastic straws out there, many of these are currently not appropriate or safe. Take paper straws, for example – they are not suitable for use with hot drinks and often disintegrate, which can be a choking hazard. Metal and glass straws can potentially be dangerous for people with neurological conditions, and heat up to high temperatures when used for hot drinks. Reusable plastic straws also present hygiene concerns for those with specific health conditions. Thus, at present, plastic straws remain the only viable solution for some.
Whilst the environmentally conscious among us might not like to hear it, plastic currently does have its place in society. And perhaps the problem isn’t the use of plastic in general, but that we’re using it far too often, in the wrong way, and we aren’t ‘disposing’ of it properly. The fact is that plastic exists – and for some people with disabilities, it can be the difference between living comfortably or suffering. What we should be doing instead of banning plastic straws is finding ways of increasing the recycling rates of the plastic that already exists, as well as coming up with ways of using this plastic in ways that benefit society.
For now, stigmatising the use of plastic straws will simply isolate those who rely upon them; going to a cafe or restaurant with a plastic straw ban simply isn’t an option for some people with disabilities. What we as a society can do instead is use this challenge as an opportunity to come together and listen, understand the problems with existing alternatives, and help create and share innovative solutions that work for everyone.
Personally, I don’t believe that the Government cares all that much about plastic straws – and frankly I’m not even sure this debate is simply about straws at all. By suggesting that a ban may take place, perhaps what the Government is trying to do – other than win over younger voters – is send a wider message that they’re listening to the demands of society. But in the process, they’ve shown that the voices of disability groups are being largely ignored, as well as highlight the sheer lack of diversity in UK political decision making.
If we are to move forward and encourage greater political diversity, we need to design products, public spaces and policies with persons with disabilities in mind, as well as facilitate their involvement in the creation of these. This will not only encourage innovation, but will help to create a more inclusive and equal society for all. And hopefully one without too much plastic.
Our guest contributor, Evie Calder, is the Co-Founder of Atlas & Ortus, a company dedicated to ethical and sustainable living. To read more about Evie’s work, visit www.atlasandortus.co.uk.