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Plastic straws and the needs of persons with disabilities

As the war on plastic straws gains momentum across the supply and food industries, more supermarkets and restaurants are giving up on the straw. However, one vital side of the debate has started to emerge that also needs attention and consideration – the needs of persons with disabilities.

The noble effort to ban plastic straws and protect the environment has gained vast momentum in recent times, but all the alternative materials are not suitable for people living with facial and muscular disabilities. Plastic straws are an important tool for enabling people with facial paralysis or other disabilities that hinder basic functions to eat and drink.

Plastic straws are the best option for persons with disabilities

Many people living with disabilities are worried that if plastic straws completely disappear, they will be severely limited in their accessibility and requirements for daily living. It’s beyond question that plastic straws are harmful to animals, but they are the best type of straw for people who need them every day.

Alternatives such as metal, glass, bamboo and paper all have their drawbacks, but the major pitfall is flexibility. Of all the alternatives, plastic straws are the only ones that can be maneuvered and bent for ease of drinking, making it easier to place the mouth on to the straw.

Besides flexibility, other drawbacks of alternative straws include risk of injury, the high cost and risk of burns when drinking hot liquids. Metal straws, for example, heat up when placed in a cup of coffee and can burn the lips even once the drink has cooled slightly. Plastic is the only material that is cheap, won’t injure someone if they sit on it, and is safe for use with hot liquids.

Persons with disabilities need to have a say

This is not to say that we should halt the effort to eradicate plastic straws. The debate does, however, need more input from a wider base of society. All angles need to be looked at and all possible solutions need to be explored. We need to be considerate of the environment but also of the people who depend on straws for daily functions.

Brands and businesses looking to ban or stop the supply of plastic straws need to consult the affected communities and make sure that they won’t be further disabling vulnerable individuals. 

Certain stores and restaurants will still supply plastic straws in the future, but if the manufacturers decide to stop the production before a suitable alternative is found, differently-abled individuals may be marginalised. A more suitable step may be to focus on the recycling and production of plastic packaging first.

Plastic bags, plastic cutlery and single-use coffee cups are also hazardous to animals and the environment but aren’t as essential to the needs of persons with disabilities as plastic straws. It’s important to save the environment but we need to think about humans too.

Many companies are phasing out their plastic bags and are using more recycled plastic in the production of their packaging, which is something all businesses can focus on as well.

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Written by Joshua Oates

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