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The War On Straws — Your Favorite Eco-Fad Isn’t Saving The Turtles, It’s Ableist

The War On Straws — Your Favorite Eco-Fad Isn’t Saving The Turtles, It’s Ableist

In my on-going quest to become the ultimate “snowflake-social-justice-warrior twitter-woke-queen”, a.k.a a person with empathy, I recently made an effort to diversify the list of people I follow on social media to include a group of people who, due to my privilege and ignorance, I regrettably admit– I hadn’t considered: disabled people. The decision stemmed from a couple of different things, most impactful being a thread about everyday struggles that many disabled people face daily. I figured the thread would be full of laments about medications or doctors, or other things along a medical line. But what I found was hundreds of disabled people sharing the frustrating and difficult experiences they face every day. From having to call ahead to check if a restaurant is truly accessible, to the complicated guilt they (unjustly) feel when asking someone to give up the priority seat on public transportation, the list goes on. Reading this thread was particularly eye-opening, as it’s not often that I, a black woman, am presented a situation in which I am a part of the privileged, dominant culture. Luckily, that thread made it extremely easy to find disabled people, activists, and writers to follow. Currently, around 35% of my Twitter timeline is made up of tweets, videos, content from the disabled community (the rest of the pie chart being made up of Black twitter, cringe-inducing TikToks and Beyoncé stan accounts). However, a recent experience reminded me that while my personal feed now includes the constantly overlooked disabled perspective, mainstream culture does not.

I was minding my business, riding home on the train when I noticed two girls staring at me, snickering and “whispering”. I had just worked a long-ass shift… in luxury retail. So, as you can imagine, I was in no mood. I figured they were just sippin’ that haterade, until I heard one say, “you’re killing the turtles”, referring to the straw in my smoothie cup. Firstly, my straw was a cassava-plant biodegradable straw. Secondly, and more importantly: I’ve had it with the plastic straw slander.

It was at some point during 2018 that I first heard about the #StrawBan. It has since become one of the biggest environmental fads of recent years. And one of the least nuanced. It’s origin details, like many things online, are hard to pinpoint, but a video of a straw being pulled out of a turtle’s nose was definitely at the forefront of the movement. Contextually speaking, 0.3% of the ocean’s plastic comes from plastic straws, while 46% comes from fishing nets. Not to say that 0.3% of the ocean’s plastic isn’t a shit ton because it is, but that should give you some much-needed perspective.

 

And while I think it’s great that my local Body Energy Club has started offering paper and cassava straws, as more and more establishments (here’s looking at you, Starbucks) try their hand at plastic straw alternatives, many of which have gone as far as removing plastic straws entirely, keeping them out of reach, behind the counter, or invisible altogether. And it’s ableist as f*ck.

By demonizing plastic straws, going as far as to outright ban them like in Washington, D.C., and Seattle, the world is once again overlooking the disabled community, many of whom rely on the use of plastic straws as a means of safe and comfortable drinking, eating, or medicating.

Before someone starts (because someone always does), let me hit y’all with some facts:

“Why can’t disabled people bring their own, reusable/recycled straws from home?”

Disabled people face discrimination and ableism daily, living in a world that is not only not for them, but is actively against them. Most don’t have the energy, time, or means to properly sterilize and pack straws to bring wherever they go. What happens if they want to go out for a drink with friends after work but forgot their straw at home? Does that mean they shouldn’t enjoy the spontaneity of unplanned fun that able-bodied people take for granted every day?

“Why can’t they just use metal/biodegradable/paper straws?”

Lucky for you, courtesy of @Rollwthepunches, I have a simple chart that explains exactly why they can not “just” do that.

“Well, Vanessa, why can’t they can just ask for a straw if they need one?”

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Who the hell wants to make a public announcement of their disability or condition that requires or suggests they use a straw every time they go out? Why have able-bodied people become the gatekeepers of accessibility? Not all disabilities are visible, and I can only imagine how humiliating and dehumanizing it would be to have someone judgmentally tell you, “you don’t look disabled enough”. Actually, I don’t have to imagine, because I’ve read multiple threads of disabled people recounting their own versions of that exact scenario. And, spoiler alert: It is humiliating. It’s also exhausting, insulting, and a common occurrence. Accommodation and accessibility are NOT the same thing. Accessibility is a human right. And, “It’s not accessibility if you have to ask.”

It should also be noted: Not all plastic straw alternatives are as eco-friendly as you may think. Obviously, metal straws require metal materials, which need to be mined. Not to mention the large amounts of energy needed to convert those sheets of metal into straws. Additionally, some of the restaurants that have made the switch to metal straws have noticed a common problem: people keep taking them home. It’s not very eco-friendly if restaurants have to keep replacing their metal straws. Which, while isn’t great but could be ok if the stolen straws were being properly reused. But more times than not, the metal straws end up lost or forgotten about.

A few people have also claimed that Starbucks “nitro” lids actually use more plastic than the old lids and straws combined. A claim that Starbucks hasn’t denied, instead saying, “the straw-less lid is made from polypropylene, a commonly-accepted recyclable plastic that can be captured in recycling infrastructure, unlike straws which are too small and lightweight to be captured in modern recycling equipment.” That’s a fair point. However, just because the lids can be recycled, doesn’t mean we should assume they are being recycled, as only 9% of the world’s plastic even gets recycled. So before climbing up on your high-horse to vilify plastic straws, while drinking your matcha oat-milk iced latte out of a single-use plastic cup with a straw-less lid– that is also made from plastic– consider other ways you can reduce your plastic consumption/waste, ways that don’t put disabled community’s quality of life at risk.

I am by no means an expert on the disabled community, their rights, or struggle. I’m simply echoing the voices that I’ve read and learned from. Voices that need to be heard. And what I’ve realized is that it’s laughably ridiculous to focus so disproportionately on things like plastic straws, or pre-packaged food– things that are integral to the lives of many who find it difficult to cut up their produce or need a pain-free way to enjoy a Starbucks drink, particularly when there are so many other, bigger and more consequential ways that (primarily able-bodied) people contribute to plastic waste. Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way saying that I think we should continue our wildly liberal use of single-use plastic. All I’m saying is that the demonization of plastic-like straws is extremely harmful to the disabled community, and further perpetuates the stigma they face.

The world forces disabled people to make themselves smaller, and apologize for simply requesting the bare minimum. They are constantly hyper-aware of their bodies and the space they take up. And for people already dealing with various issues, that is an extremely heavy load to bear. I know that internalized ableism is difficult to navigate, or maybe even to admit, but we all have it. The world sees to that every day when it tells disabled people that their needs don’t matter, that they don’t matter, that they should be grateful for receiving any sort of “accommodation” at all. With inclusion being the trend of the times, it’s important that the diversity and rights we’re fighting for include all marginalized groups.

“No one is free until we’re all free” -MLK

To diversify your own timeline with some disability representation check out these badass ladies:

  • Alice Wong, @SFDireWolf, is a disabled podcaster and the the founder and director of @DisVisibility, an online platform that amplifies disability culture, media, and content.
  • @Imani_Barbarin is a black, disabled, and the creator of multiple hashtags movements in the disability community, my favourite being #AbledsAreWeird. Because, well, us ableds are weird.
  • @VilissaThompson is a writer, social worker, and the founder of @RampYourVoice, a disability rights and advocacy agency.
By: Vanessa Fajemisin
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