For many with disabilities, plastic straws are essential – not frivolous

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“I just want to say one word to you. Just one word… plastics … There’s a great future in plastics.”

That scene, from the classic 1967 movie The Graduate, may have been prescient, but has not aged well.

Modern society’s love of plastic has proven profitable and convenient but it has taken a massive toll on the health of the planet.

About 300 million tons of plastic are produced annually. (There is no single substance called “plastic” – the term covers many materials made from an array of organic and inorganic compounds.)

More than eight million tons end up in oceans, another 30 million tons in recycling and the rest in landfills and elsewhere in the environment. By some estimates, by 2050, there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish.

Plastic’s strength, low cost and durability, is what makes it problematic. It breaks down slowly, so it accumulates. When it does break down, the microscopic fragments seep into land and water, an insidious and pervasive pollution problem.

The old three Rs mantra – reuse, recycle, reduce – is not proving particularly effective.

There are a fair number of reusable plastic products, but there are health concerns about chemicals such as bisphenol A and phthalates that can leech out.

The recycling industry is overwhelmed to the point that much of what goes into blue bins now goes to the landfill. Recycling the broad range of plastics is complex and it’s often cheaper to produce new products than use recycled materials.

The obvious solution is to reduce use of plastics, especially single-use products such as packaging, bags and straws.

The global movement to ban straws is really picking up steam, fuelled by viral videos such as the cringe-worthy one of scientists extricating a plastic straw from a turtle’s nostril and aided by catchy hashtags such as #strawssuck.

Vancouver has become one of the first cities to impose a ban on plastic straws in commercial establishments such as restaurants and bars, and it is expected to be a subject of discussion among world leaders at this week’s Group of Seven summit in Charlevoix, Que.

The vilification of straws has also become a cultural phenomenon, with hipsters carrying their own metal straws and establishments embracing alternatives made of glass, paper, bamboo, rubber, hemp, wheat and more.

But well-meaning gestures can have unintended consequences, and this one is no exception.

People with a broad range of health conditions, from Down syndrome to dementia, from rare neuromuscular disorders to stroke impairments, rely heavily on straws – and bendy plastic straws in particular – to facilitate drinking.

For people with disabilities, straws are not frivolous; they are an accessibility issue as much as ramps are for users of mobility devices.

While most people take it for granted, getting a drink from your hand to your lips, and then tipping liquid in and swallowing requires a complex set of motions. Anyone who has helped feed a loved one with advanced dementia knows this all too well.

The straw, and the bendable plastic straw more specifically, is a remarkably successful example of an accessible technology, and it should not be banned mindlessly any more than it is discarded thoughtlessly.

When we embrace sweeping bans and enforce self-righteous no-straws policies in bars and restaurants, we have to be careful not to create barriers to inclusion.

There are, by some estimates, 57 million plastic straws used in Canada daily. There is no question that number can be reduced markedly. There is no doubt either that there are some decent alternatives to plastic.

But this issue requires a social solution more than a legal solution. That means embracing approaches such as moving from opt-out to ask-in policies.

Don’t expect everyone to have their own straw. Don’t assume alternatives are always better. Rigid straws can be difficult to manipulate, especially for people who can use only their chins. Paper straws don’t work well for hot liquids. Glass and metal straws can hurt people who bite them. And, if you have trouble drinking, you are quite likely to have trouble washing and carrying a reusable straw.

We want cleaner oceans. We want to protect turtles and other marine wildlife.

But doing so should not result in some people being vilified, shut out, or discriminated against.

When people do ask, a plastic straw should be provided, no questions asked. It’s a reasonable accommodation, not a blight on the planet.

One word to you, just one word … inclusion … There’s a great future in inclusion.

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