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What are the real tradeoffs of the straw ban?

Single use plastic straws are optional to many, but can be critical for people with certain disabilities.
Flickr Photo/Horia Varlan (CC BY 2.0)/
Single use plastic straws are optional to many, but can be critical for people with certain disabilities.

Seattle's straw ban has coincided with hometown coffee chain Starbucks' decision to phase out all single-use plastic straws by 2020. The new sippy cup-esque lid is recyclable - but what it's not is accessible to folks with disabilities who rely on single use plastic straws.

"The straw was initially designed to help people with disabilities," points out attorney and researcher Robyn Powell. Powell joined Bill Radke today to discuss the ban, and the overall harmful effects of policies implemented without consulting the disabled community.

Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

BILL RADKE: Seattle's ban on single use plastic straws might have nudged a little hometown coffee chain called Starbucks to announce they will phase out straws globally.

In place of the straw is a lid designed for Starbucks that looks like a sippy cup. The lids designer, Emily Alexander, said in a statement that – quote – It was this very small thing and now it is so much bigger and more impactful.

But it's not a small thing for some Starbucks customers. Robyn Powell is an attorney, a writer, a scholar, whose work focuses on Disability Law and Policy. And she joins me now to explain why it's not a small thing. Robyn, welcome to KUOW.

ROBYN POWELL: Thank you for having me.

RADKE: Starbucks says this lid is an important step forward for the environment. What are potential downsides?

POWELL: One of the biggest things is that the disability community wasn't involved in any of this and if they were, we would have told you that the lids do not help the problem. I cannot pick up a cup. So whether it is a lid or not, that's not going to negate the issue of being able to drink independently. That's why the straws are so important.

RADKE: And what is lost? Tell us more about how important straws are and what is lost to people with disabilities?

POWELL: You need to drink in order to live. That's a pretty natural requirement. And without a straw, so many of us – including myself – are not able to independently drink. I have a disability and I cannot actually pick up a cup. It’s completely impossible. So if I am not given a straw I am unable to drink at all.

RADKE: Well in Seattle, the ban is on single-use, non-reusable plastic straws. So I interviewed someone who told me about bamboo straws and glass straws metal straws. Do those seem like viable options?

POWELL: So there are a number of options out there, unfortunately, they don't necessarily work for all in the disability community. So for instance, many of those straws do not work in hot beverages; many of us use straws for soup, and things like that.

Also metal straws are really awful – or glass ones – for people who have Parkinson's and other spasms, you're going to break a tooth if you have a spasm while you're drinking [while using those kinds of straws].

So those are just not viable options.

Paper straws also just disintegrate over time. Although there are options out there, unfortunately at this point they don't seem to satisfy the needs of all people with disabilities.

I think that's where including people with disabilities would be really important. If straw companies could reach out to the disability community and work on manufacturing straws that would work, I think we could see some progress.

RADKE: What kind of a straw would work?

POWELL: I'm not entirely sure and that is why I'm not a manufacturer but I think that it needs to have a lot of the same things that plastic straws offer, so of course, being able to be bended, strong enough that it will withstand heat in different temperatures, but also not too strong that someone has a spasm – or something like that – and they break their tooth. So it will need to be some materials very similar to plastic and I just don't think at this point we are there.

But I know that there is a really big push because, obviously, we're not against the environment. We strongly believe – we the disability community – that we need to make many changes to save our planet. Unfortunately, I don't think at this point the needs of people with disabilities have been considered at all.

RADKE: Have you had increasing trouble, Robyn, in getting a plastic straw to use? We've been hearing about [straw] bans cropping up here and there.

POWELL: I have not actually to this moment. I might still have straws in my city and state, so I have not had any personal issues. I've heard of some.

My biggest concern though is if we do implement these bans, what happens [next]. Then I would suggest some sort of on demand option instead so that straws are readily available for those who need it upon request.

The only caveat I would add is that they need to actually be available and people with disabilities and anyone who needs or needs to be able to ask without ridicule.

I think that's something that we do worry about. Is it going to be consistent across chains, and where do we meet an employee that really ridicules us, or says you know you don't really need a straw. I think that would be inappropriate.

RADKE: Have you seen companies do that well? Have a product or a service on demand in a sensitive way?

POWELL: Yes. I actually went on a cruise in April to Bermuda and I had no problems on a cruise ship so they do not provide straws but they do provide them if you request them. So they're not just automatically given with drinks. And I worried on the first day when I learned this that – oh my goodness – I'm never going to be able to get a straw without feeling awful about myself, or people questioning whether I really need them. And I was very surprised pleasantly to find out that was not the case. And then when I got to Bermuda, that is also how they handle straws. And again, I was not, I did not encounter any issues actually. So I think if done correctly it could work. I just think we need to make sure that we're doing that.

RADKE: And what about Robyn, what about carry your own straw? Is that a solution?

POWELL: That does not seem like a solution to me. We wouldn't ask someone to carry their own silverware. I mean the next thing is, are we going to ask people to carry their own plates? I mean it just it's a slippery slope. It's also these reusable straws and the compostable ones and others — they're just more expensive. People with disabilities tend to live in more low income brackets. It's just not feasible at this point. It's also just putting a burden on people with disabilities that’s unnecessary. We don't do that for the nondisabled population.

RADKE: Again, I'm talking with Robyn Powell, attorney, writer, and scholar. She focuses her work on disability law and policy. And you had an interesting story that I didn't know, Robyn, about how the plastic straw came to be – the single use plastic straws came to be – in the first place.

POWELL: Yes. Straws were invented back in the early 1900s in a hospital actually because of people with disabilities and others who were sick and unable to drink beverages independently. So they were always intended for people with disabilities and others that were unable to drink independently.

So that's what their intention was and it seems that we're doing a disservice if we're going to try to take that away without a viable option.

RADKE: Do you think an upside of the ban on single use plastic straws like Seattle's, is there an environmental upside that you recognize?

POWELL: I mean obviously I believe that we should be reducing the use of plastic. But research has shown that these plastic straw bands don't actually change much and in fact other efforts, such as eliminating plastic bags, are far more effective in lowering plastic use. So I would encourage localities to really look at that instead.

RADKE: You know Robin finally I've seen a lot of people on Twitter frustrated with a kind of debate where it seems people with disabilities are pitted against environmentalism. What's your take on that?

POWELL: We have a really weird history of just always pitting environmentalism against social justice issues. I don't necessarily think that the two are mutually exclusive. I think that we can promote the rights of people with disabilities while also working to protect the environment. I think we need to do that in a more coherent way, and we need to do it in a more inclusive way, so that we're ensuring that people aren't losing their rights or their needs aren't being met while also ensuring that we are saving the planet for generations to come.

RADKE: Well Robyn, I'm speaking with you right now in the home, the global home, of Starbucks which as we said is phasing out these straws globally. What do you want to say to Starbucks right now?

POWELL: I would encourage Starbucks to reconsider their policy and to engage with the disability community so that we can come up with a more equitable approach that reduces the use of plastic while also ensuring that the needs of people with disabilities are met.

RADKE: Robyn Powell, lawyer, researcher, writer focusing on Disability law and policy. Robyn, appreciate you joining us. Thank you.

POWELL: Thank you.

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