Consider the plastic straw.
The once ubiquitous and popular item has become a symbol of our throw-away culture and the proliferation of non-recyclable materials. In the US and UK alone, 550 million plastic straws are thrown away every day, according to Plastic Oceans Foundation.
Along with single-use carrier bags and disposable cups, the plastic straw’s fall from grace has gone hand-in-hand with an increasing awareness of the damage they are causing, particularly to marine life. Around 8 million tons of plastic waste end up in the world’s oceans each year, according to the United Nations Environment Assembly.
After the BBC television programme Blue Planet 2 underscored the devastating effects plastic can have on sea creatures, and millions of people watched a video of researchers extracting a straw from the nostril of a sea turtle, companies and governments have started to take action.
Starbucks is one example. The global coffee chain said it plans to phase out the 1 billion plastic straws it uses each year by 2020. Demand for straws had been increasing alongside the popularity of cold drinks, it said, with cold beverages making up half of all sales in 2017, up from 37% five years ago. Soon, when you visit Starbucks for a cold drink, you’ll be offered a recyclable lid you can sip through.
The company joins other high-profile brands moving away from straws. McDonald’s is replacing plastic straws with paper ones in all its restaurants in the UK and Ireland and plans to start testing alternatives the US, France, Sweden, Norway and Australia.
IKEA will ban plastic straws in the UK and Ireland later this year and plans to remove single-use plastics from its global product range by the end of the decade. And Hyatt Hotels Corporation said that from September plastic straws and drink picks will be offered “on request only and eco-friendly alternatives will be provided where available.” Even the Queen of England has turned anti-straw.
But not everyone is happy about the straw’s demise, since they are helpful for people that can’t raise a cup to their mouth to drink. And while Starbucks has responded to these concerns, saying anyone who needs a straw can request one made of “alternative materials,” the benefits may prove difficult to match.
Others have questioned how much banning plastic straws will actually help. Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade and a Bloomberg Opinion columnist estimates that straws make up a relatively small proportion of all plastic waste in the oceans and argues that clamping down in other areas, for example reducing how much old fishing gear is dumped and lessening company waste, would be more effective than banning straws.
For disabled people and the elderly, plastic straws are flexible and can withstand the temperature of hot coffee, tea or soup, making them useful for eating and drinking. And campaigners say the alternatives -- which include paper, glass or stainless steel -- are unsuitable for use because they either disintegrate or conduct heat.
The World Health Organisation estimates that there are more than 600 million people with disability in the world, and while not all of those will need to use straws to eat and drink, it does give some idea of the scale of the issue.
In Seattle, where a ban came into effect on 1 July, the law says companies can make exceptions for people who require plastic straws. Even so, disability rights groups said firms don’t fully understand that they can still offer straws to those that need them, and the alternatives offered aren’t adequate replacements.
Some campaigners complain that companies and governments are acting in response to their concerns -- changing policies after they’ve been implemented -- rather than proactively considering disability needs when shaping legislation. Scotland’s government wants to outlaw plastic straws by the end of 2019 and has appointed a disability adviser to its expert panel to help make sure “the actions taken do not disproportionately affect disabled people.”
Putting the onus on disabled people to remember their own straws or wash a reusable alternative isn’t a viable or fair solution, campaigners say, as in many cases they may not be able to do so and if they forget to carry a straw with them the consequences of dehydration could be severe.
In a blog post on Greenpeace’s web site, Jamie Szymkowiak, the co-Founder of disability rights group, One in Five, called on manufacturers to produce an environmentally friendly flexible non-plastic straw that is suitable for hot and cold drinks.
Paper is unsuitable because it becomes soggy and a choking risk, he says. Silicone alternatives are not flexible enough and metal, glass and bamboo present dangers for people who have difficulty controlling their bite.
While in their current form, plastic straws can take between 100 and 1,000 years to decompose, biodegradable plastics may offer a viable alternative, since they can break down in as little as 12 weeks under the right conditions. Shunned so far because they cost more than double traditional plastic and because they can’t be easily distinguished from their non-biodegradable cousins, they may yet become part of the way forward.
“We must all work together to demand an environmentally friendly solution that meets all our needs, including those of disabled people,” Szymkowiak says. “As we move to ridding our oceans, beaches and parks of unnecessary single-use plastics, disabled people shouldn’t be used as a scapegoat by large corporations, or governments, unwilling to push suppliers and manufacturers to produce a better solution.”