Before We Ban the Plastic Straw, Think of People with Disabilities

plastic straw and plastic cup

Bad news folks, the plastic water bottle in your house will outlive you, your children and even their grandchildren. This is chiefly because it takes around 1000 years to fully decompose, and it’s cousin – the plastic straw – is said to take roughly 500 years. We as a species have wiped all of our 7.6 billion arses on the environment and now we’re starting to smell the shit.

More bad news – a study conducted by NUI Galway found that some 73% of deep-sea fish have consumed plastic in one form or another. How long before those plastics are found in humans at a similar rate? Professor Daniel Rothman, co-founder of the MIT Lorenz Centre – an institution devoted to learning how climate works – predicts that as early as 2100 we will be entering into environmental instability, the kind that could trigger the sort of problems we won’t evolve fast enough to survive. In short, by the end of the century, all bets are off.

Plastic Waste in Vietnam

Well, clearly we’ve got a lot to learn about how to live in a way that doesn’t render our entire planet an uninhabitable hell-scape in a far more literal way than it already is. All that bad news served up earlier simply highlights how badly we need the work of pioneering environmentalists. Up and down Vietnam, campaigns are being launched, measures are being taken and decisions are being made to stem the rising tide of plastic pollution. One of the first on the hit list has been the plastic straw. I previously wrote that not many tears would be shed for the loss, but I was unfortunately mistaken.

There are those who urgently need plastic straws to go about their life. The 2009 census in Vietnam highlighted that 7.8% of the population at that time lived with disability in some form. That’s over five million people. The most recent estimate of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 2018 highlighted that approximately one billion people worldwide have disabilities.

plastic straws

As innumerate efforts to ban plastic straws gain momentum, few are aware that the oft-desired goal – an outright ban on plastic straws – is set to have a disproportionately dire impact on the quality of life of those living with disabilities. Many charities and advocacy groups worldwide have complained bitterly at having been ignored or simply not having been consulted on such a vital issue that, to some people, is essentially a matter of life and death. The need to be able to drink independently is one that has so far been mitigated by the ubiquity of the plastic straw, but the work from environmentalists is threatening to change that.

This is not to say that the bid to reduce plastic pollution isn’t a noble cause, or that we should stop supporting the narrative of those seeking to address the grave environmental problem, but evidently there is a need for balance. Writing for Wales Online, British businesswoman and disabilities advocate, Rosie Moriarty-Simmonds highlights the conundrum that a plastic straw ban can leave disabled people in. Moriarty-Simmonds was born without arms or legs after her mother was prescribed thalidomide while pregnant. “Disabled people have many and varied impairments, which are impacted by the use of alternatives to single-use flexible plastic straws.”

Rosie Moriarty-Simmonds - a Campaigner for use of plastic straws for disabled people.

Rosie Moriarty-Simmonds. Photo courtesy of Wales Online.

Moriarty-Simmonds goes on to explain how alternatives have failed to be of much use to people in her situation, with paper straws being utterly inadequate for hot drinks. Glass and metal straws both conduct heat, with glass in particular presenting a danger in the form of shattering. Bamboo straws lack the flexibility that many disabled people need in order to drink or eat soup, but also require a regular cleaning which is nigh-on impossible for someone in Moriarty-Simmonds’ situation.

Bamboo straws made and sold at a bee farm in Phu Quoc

Bamboo straws

It’s a sentiment echoed by Joanna Denelle, the sales and marketing manager of Donkey Bakery in Hanoi. “While at Donkey Bakery, we don’t really have anyone with disabilities that would be affected by these issues, it’s true that most alternatives would be unsuitable and lack the flexibility, I think the cost of many reusable straws would be an issue for some people here too.”

Joanne Denelle - Donkey Bakery

Donkey Bakery entrance

Joanna Denelle and Donkey Bakery.

Donkey Bakery work to train and employ blind, deaf and mute people in Hanoi, providing them with the skills they need to live a fuller life and allowing them to live more independently from their own salaries. The issue of cost is one that hits disabled people in Vietnam especially hard, with over 75% of those living with disabilities residing in rural areas, where the cost of an environmentally-friendly alternative to plastic straws is less feasible.

Many organisations in Vietnam declined to comment on the issue, but it would appear that an especially simple solution could be implemented immediately for the benefit of everyone. Last November, SA Brains – Welsh beer brewing company and owner of 103 pubs across the UK – announced that they would be joining the Straws Suck initiative as a means of reducing their plastic waste. “We understand there will be some adults and children who need to use straws so a small number will be kept behind the bar in our pubs, but we are confident the Straws Suck initiative will dramatically cut the amount of plastic waste our pubs are throwing away.”

Plastic cutlery 2

This sort of moderated response to the issue shows a certain degree of consideration – one that we ought to bear in mind before deciding to take drastic action, even when it seems like the right thing to do.

“There is a body of support which acknowledges the positive factors of single-use plastic straws,” added Moriarty-Simmonds. “It is only when the effect of banning them entirely is explained to members of the public, who are prepared to listen, do people really understand why the humble straw is important to thousands of disabled people.”

If the reach of environmental issues will extend to all people, indifferent to the unique situations we all exist within, then the solutions we put forth should also include all people. A universal problem requires a universal solution.

Bamboo straws made and sold at a bee farm in Phu Quoc.

Joma using environmentally friendly straws

© HOT TABLE. All photography by Mi Nguyen (unless credited otherwise).

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