The Plastic Straw Ban & How It Harms Disabled People

It was back in February of this year that the conversation about plastic straws started to gain momentum, and I found myself writing about it in the media, talking about it on the Channel 5 News and spending nearly every waking minute explaining disabled people's side of the debate on Twitter. It felt like we made a lot of noise and despite some places having already removed plastic straws from their businesses and large companies like Starbucks announcing the eventual removal of plastic straws, it felt like maybe people were listening. I received so many messages along the lines of 'I had no idea so many disabled people relied on them' which I think is so representative, many people are unintentionally ignorant to the needs of disabled people but what matters is how you respond when you're enlightened.

Last month the subject came alive again as we found out where the government and evidently a large proportion of the general public sit on the issue, plastic straws are pointless is the line that keeps coming out again and again. The government announced a plan to ban plastic straws. Meanwhile, thousands of disabled people in the UK are staring at news articles with confused faces as we think, 'hang on, without plastic straws I can't drink', I don't know about you but that strikes me as quite the opposite of the word 'pointless'. Let's take things back a little first though and talk about the history of the bendy plastic straw.

The history of the straw is a long one but it's the bendy plastic straw in particular I'm focusing on because this is the one that many disabled people use. The bendy plastic straw was invented by Joseph Friedman in 1937 after he observed a child struggling to drink out of a straight straw. His invention didn't really take off until the 1940s though, but when it did his flexible straw was first marketed to hospitals. For me, this is a really important fact. Friedman's flexible straw is cited as an early example of a universal design, in other words it's an example of something being made accessible to all people. It made drinking a lot easier and safer for disabled people, elderly people and those in hospital. After all of my surgeries I spent a lot of time laying in bed, recovering, and bendy plastic straws made drinking possible and easy. When I'm in a flare up or I'm ill I can be stuck in my bed for days sometimes and again, bendy plastic straws mean I can safely, easily and independently drink. Basically, these straws were first used in hospitals for a good reason. They revolutionised things for disabled people.

Some people keep asking questions like, 'what did disabled people do before plastic straws?' as though to prove we don't need them. The truth is, we struggled, suffered from medical complications, weren't independent and as Jessica said, we died. It's like asking what disabled people did before wheelchairs, we were quite simply bed bound. No one wants to go back to either of those times, and so we're fighting this proposed ban.

It was in April of this year that the government's plan to ban plastic straws, alongside plastic drinks stirrers and cotton buds, first started to look serious. A consultation was announced for the end of the year and we were told that these items could be banned from as soon as next year. Now, at this point I have to say I didn't really believe it simply because I couldn't believe how ignored disabled people had been. We'd shouted as loud as we could to get the message out that we needed plastic straws, that we relied on plastic straws, but yet there we were being forgotten and ignored. Fast forward to last month though and things started getting even more serious.

In October 2018 the UK government officially set out it's plan to ban the distribution and sale of plastic straws, subject to a consultation that is open for anyone to respond to. When this was first talked about in April I think one of the reasons why I didn't believe it was because it felt fast, and now this feels even faster. We could see plastic straws disappear within a year, and in fact we are already seeing them disappear from shops, cafes and restaurants. This is a worrying situation if you're a disabled person who relies on plastic straws. Each and every time I bring up this subject, whether it be in person or online, the same response comes up again and again; why can't you just use an alternative? Why does it have to be plastic? Thankfully Sarah, a student and activist, came up with a handy chart which breaks down why the different alternatives available are not suitable for many disabled people.

As explained before, bendy plastic straws were first used in hospitals for a very good reason and whilst there are many other different straws options available, such as paper and metal, plastic is still the best option for a lot of disabled people. If you can use an alternative, great, but some of us can't and we should be believed when we say that. I don't 100% rely on plastic straws, but for me it's a case of things are a lot easier and safer and I'm far more independent when using a plastic straw. I can't tell you how many glasses I've smashed over the years. However, I would struggle to clean a reusable straw and don't have a carer who could do so for me, and I also would struggle to remember to bring them out with me. As it stands I'm taking my own plastic straws with me when I'm out and about but most of the time I forget. Now for me that isn't always the difference between drinking and not drinking, but for many disabled people it is. If you rely on plastic straws and arrive somewhere to find they aren't offered that could easily mean you aren't able to have a drink. I'm not just talking about an after work cocktail either, not having a plastic straw is a barrier to drinking water for some.

As soon as I found a link to the government's consultation on this issue I began to fill it out, not expecting it would take 45 minutes of my time, and that was with skipping questions that didn't apply. They say anyone can fill it out and have their say, but as a disabled person with minimal energy to spare, it didn't feel like this consultation had been designed with the general public, and specifically disabled people, in mind. This is what the government have to say about those who require plastic straws:

'We recognise there are instances where using plastic straws is necessary for medical reasons and our consultation seeks views on how to ensure those who need straws for medical and accessibility reasons can still use them. For example, pharmacies will still be able to sell plastic straws and restaurants, pubs and bars will be able to stock some straws for use on request. The Government will work closely with stakeholders to ensure these exemptions are crafted exactly right.' - Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

Firstly, I've seen the mention of pharmacies in connection with this issue come up a few times now and my worry with going down that road is we will get to the point where plastic straws will be on prescription. Someone else will get to decide whether you're entitled to a plastic straw, and for those who have to pay for their prescriptions that won't be cheap. Equally, even if pharmacies simply just sell them to the general public, it will be an extra expense for disabled people who on average already have £570 of extra costs each month. We are already struggling, by putting the responsibility on us to buy and then remember to take straws with us you will be putting unnecessary stress and strain on our lives. 

The second part of that statement states that restaurants, pubs and bars will still be able to stock some straws for use on request. What we are already seeing is that this is the case, but it's not plastic straws they are stocking for use on request, it's paper. As outlined in the chart above, that won't work for some disabled people. There will undoubtedly be places that will just refuse to stock plastic straws, even for disabled people. And then the other problem with this is you'll have someone else deciding whether someone is disabled enough to need the straw they are asking for. We know how poorly those with invisible disabilities are treated in general and this has the ability to only make that worse. We already have unqualified people within the DWP making decisions about their lives, don't hand that over to the public as well. 

Now, I'm not saying that I have the solution to this problem. We all know that collectively our actions aren't doing good things for the planet but to me the logical way to tackle this problem would be to target the biggest polluters. I came across an article on Eco-Business a little while ago, whilst doing some research for this post, that looked at this issue from the angle of targeting big businesses. It covered how Greenpeace, an environmental group, had launched a campaign ahead of 2018s Earth Day to put pressure on corporations. This was backed up by a plastic waste study that was conducted in September 2017 in coastal areas of the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia and the US. This revealed that brands Nestle, Unilever, Coca Cola, Pepsico and Proctor & Gamble were some of the biggest offenders when it came to plastic pollution. If we put the responsibility onto the big names then we'll force a shift towards investing money into finding viable alternatives, rather than the responsibility falling on the general public with our act now, ask questions later ideology. Sure, there are things individuals can do like properly recycling, using a reusable coffee cup and where able, a reusable straw but if this is to be sustainable then it's up to the big corporations to cut their pollution, pour resources into finding alternatives and taking responsibility for their own actions. 

The current trend of targeting straws to me is also just that, a trend. Starbucks exhibited this better than anyone else by announcing that it would remove plastic straws from it's stores by 2020, and in replace of the plastic straw they would offer... a plastic sippy cup lid. If you've seen photos then you might know why I'm rolling my eyes right now, these new lids appear to use much more plastic than a single straw and with no guarantee that they will all be recycled, how much impact will this really make? I spent a solid 5 minutes wheeling up and down streets in London recently trying to find a rubbish bin with a recycling section, with no luck. These plastic lids will simple be contributing to the same problem that they were trying to solve. 

Something that I've found quite entertaining since this conversation began is that single use coffee and drinks cups use far more plastic compared to single use plastic straws and yet our efforts to cut down on their use has been next to none if you compare it to the plastic straw movement. Sure, places offer money off if you bring your own cup but how many people actually do that? It's laughable to me that people still buy their iced coffee in a plastic cup, which they don't recycle, whilst at the same time being happy to remove plastic straws from disabled people, who require them. Don't take my word for it though, the statistics speak for themselves when it comes to recognising that we've got our priorities wrong. Estimates show that plastic straws only accounts for about 0.03% of our global plastic waste by mass. Another study found that an estimated 46% of debris in the ocean is abandoned fishing equipment. So, if straws are only a tiny part of this problem, what are we doing to tackle the big offenders? 

If you combine this with the targeting of pre-cut fruit and vegetables, wrapped in plastic, then it really feels like disabled people are taking the brunt of this social movement. We want to save our planet as much as the next person, but we simply recognise that we don't need to give up our right to be independent to do that. This isn't an either or situation, we don't need to sacrifice disabled people. So, the next time someone tells you how pointless plastic straws are, just remind them that for some people they are the difference between having access to liquids or not. 


  1. Thanks for writing this, Shona Louise. I'll forward it to friends. I live with mobility and other disability challenges and I thought that I knew quite a bit about the disability landscape, but I've learned a lot more from this article.

  2. Brilliantly written, will be sharing this far and wide xxx

  3. Someone weighed the new Starbucks lids and confirmed that they do indeed consume more plastic than a plastic straw: https://reason.com/blog/2018/07/12/starbucks-straw-ban-will-see-the-company

    Thanks for a great article! I have now linked to it from my collection of web links on the straw ban issue: https://ramblingjustice.wordpress.com/2018/08/01/info-resources-for-strawban-suckitableism-advocates/

  4. This is amazing Shona! I didn't know bendy straws were first introduced to hospitals & based on that fact alone, it seems crazy that they're banning them. I hope we can find a solution or hopefully stop the ban as it's just so ridiculous.

  5. Shona, Well done for raising this.
    I am not disabled but am suffering from Bell's palsy and straight straws do not cut it, as I still dribble.
    As I can afford them (for the expected short time I may need them)I have ordered reusable silicon from Amazon.
    You are so right that we never think of what people with any illness or disability may require. Must be thousands of Bell's Palsy, TIA. Stroke sufferers to whom these bendy straw are a lifesaver.
    Have you raised a UK GOV Petition, if so please can I have the link.

    1. I've seen lots of petitions to ban plastic straws but not many for keeping them for those who need them sadly! There must have been one though at some point to trigger the government consultation.

      Thank you!

  6. Really intresting I had no idea that this decision which I was on board with, would cause so many issues to disabled people. Thanks for raising awareness.