Don’t forget the straw…

A new friend and I were about to head out for a day of sightseeing. This was the first time we had ventured out together, so I had to direct her in what to pack. First, into the van she hefted the portable ramp, so that I could get into buildings with one or two steps that made them inaccessible. Second, there were a number of items to pack in my knapsack: a portable urinal for washrooms where the cubicles are too small for a transfer; a metal knife, fork and spoon because the plastic utensils provided at some eateries often break off in my mouth; a roll of paper towels because small restaurant napkins are not absorbent enough; and my supersized raincoat, which covers both me and my wheelchair.

My knapsack was now bursting at the seams, but I told her there was one more thing: “I need to pack my own plastic single-use straws so I can drink at public events and restaurants.”

My friend gave me a quizzical look. ”Seriously? You have to pack your own plastic straws? Why?”

I explained that many businesses and governments are banning plastic single-use straws because they aren’t good for the environment.

I am all for reducing plastics and waste, but the idea of a complete ban on plastic straws seems to have got a little out of hand. Stephen Trumper, chair of the editorial committee of the Canadian Abilities Foundation, describes it as the “Great Drinking Straw Ruckus.” He points out that the movement started with nine-year-old Milo Cress, who was trying to find something he could do to cut down on waste. When he noticed that a local restaurant was supplying a plastic straw with every drink, he started a movement to ask restaurants to give straws only to people who asked for them, rather than providing them with every drink.

That campaign – an eminently reasonable one – got out of hand, with many restaurants and municipalities getting on the “ban” wagon.

A total ban may sound good but it poses a problem for people who have difficulty drinking due to a disability or due to a condition such as mouth cancer or stroke—in short, a total ban is a problem for anyone who needs a straw in order to drink.

“What about reusable straws?” asked my friend. “Would they not be a good alternative?”

I agreed reusable straws sound like a great alternative. In theory… I pointed out that of the options currently available glass straws easily break, metal can damage teeth, straws made of materials such as bamboo aren’t flexible, and paper straws quickly turn to mush. “To date, I have not been able to find a straw that is as flexible and suitable as the plastic straw,” I told my friend.

As we drove down the highway, she wondered out loud what the solution is to the straw dilemma.

I spared her my dissertation on how beneficial it would be if corporations and governments engaged diverse opinions and incorporated diverse perspectives into their decisions. In fact, I was recently heartened to learn that the Ontario government is asking for the public’s input into its “Reducing Litter and Waste in Our Communities” discussion paper. One of the specific questions posed in the paper is whether a ban on single-use plastics would be effective in reducing plastic waste.

I shared with my friend the response I plan to make to the idea of such a ban: Rather than introducing an outright ban on single-use straws, permit restaurants and event locations to keep a smaller number on hand for people who truly need them to drink. This one step would greatly reduce the environmental damage from single-purpose plastic straws. It would also hopefully spark some innovation to create a better alternative for people who need a straw in order to drink.

As our day unfolded, my new friend was surprised at all the accommodations I needed to make just to enjoy the sights and sounds of our excursion. When we arrived back home and unpacked everything, she said, “I guess I never realized how much more there is to be done to create an accessible and inclusive world.”

“That’s okay,” I spelled out my communication board. “Together we can inspire change, and when we do…we rock!”