‘Disabled people care about the environment’: Include us in the plastic straw debate says the disability community

Cities have banned them, the UK is considering a country-wide ban while supermarkets and bars world-wide are no longer supplying them.

Allison Franklin from Christchurch is passionate about the environment, but she also wants to use a plastic straw. Source: 1 NEWS

Plastic straws are the latest single-use plastic to be targeted for elimination in an attempt to save our polluted oceans.

For many able-bodied people, a plastic straw is a simple convenience that can be discarded with every empty cup into the bin.

One in four New Zealanders have a disability and for many of them a plastic straw helps hydrate or feed themselves as well as giving them independence.

For Christchurch woman Allison Franklin, who has cerebral palsy, single-use plastic straws mean she can drink on her own.

"I'm old enough to remember back before plastic straws were commonplace," Ms Franklin told 1 NEWS NOW.

"When I was a kid, Mum and Dad used to wait till the drink was just about cold, tepid, and then pour it down my throat. So I had no choice about taking a sip. I had to have the whole thing in one lot or say 'can I have some more please?'"

A dedicated recycler, Ms Franklin cares about the overuse of plastics and how it is affecting the planet.

"For people who don’t need a straw, don’t use one.

"I'm all for saving the planet; I want to save the oceans, but not at the expense of my independence and pleasure."

Esther Woodbury from Disabled Person Assembly agrees, saying too often the disabled are left out of the conversation on environmental issues, especially ones where the solution has a direct impact on their community.

"I think while we totally support moves to make our environment more sustainable, there are so many ways we can do that without prioritising ones that really negatively affect some disabled people," says Ms Woodbury.

"They might have a tremor; they might move suddenly, they might have limited mobility so plastic straws are the best option for disabled people.

Targeting plastic-straws over other single-use plastic "shows a real tendency towards a populist, easy fix solution" and is a "flippant thing to do" she says.

"It shows a lack of conversation with the disabled people about the way the world works for them.

"There’s so many single-use plastics that could be targeted before straws which disabled people use to drink independently and with dignity."

Why are plastic straws so bad?

According to Sustainable Coastlines, plastic straws make up two per cent of the oceans' pollution.

Plastic straws are difficult to recycle and don’t biodegrade or dissolve and when they do break down to smaller pieces called microplastics they pose a threat to marine life.

It’s predicted that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than marine life.

Founder of Sustainable Coastlines Camden Howitt says plastic straws are three-quarters of the plastic they find on New Zealand coastlines, with 60,000 stray straws picked up on our beaches over the last 10 years.

To combat this some bars and hotels across the country have stopped supplying plastic straws but instead have opted for paper or steel straws.

Countdown supermarket has gone one step further and will stop selling plastic straws from October.

Seattle is the latest city to bring in a ban and place fines on the use of plastic straws, while the UK is hoping to eliminate plastic straws along with all avoidable plastic within the next 25 years.

Mr Howitt says he doesn’t want to see a ban on plastic straws put in place in New Zealand, but would rather see consumers refusing to use them.

"I think the thing that would help the most would be everyone voicing their opinion through saying 'no'," Mr Howitt said.

Mr Howitt says there shouldn’t be a halt to voluntary elimination of plastic straws simply because they’re cheap and convenient and disabled people can use alternatives.

"Straws don’t have to be made by a product that lasts forever when it makes it into the marine environment and it can be made of paper, can be made of bamboo and can be made of stainless steel and sterilised.”

Why don't the alternatives work?

Ms Woodbury says the disabled are aware of alternative straws, but they are not always usable.

"I know there are paper straws and they can disintegrate very easily and they can often be a choking hazard.

"There are very rigid straws – ones made of different materials – metal, but they can be very inappropriate, they can be difficult for people who need to drink from them and you can injure yourself on them.

"Metal straws can also conduct heat so it can make it very difficult and uncomfortable and potentially hazardous to drink hot drinks."

Online debate sees disabled community attacked for views

Debate between disability advocates and environmentalists on social media has turned into one that is "targeting people who are already stigmatised in society," says Ms Woodbury.

"It really 'others' disabled people and it really stigmatises disabled people rather than being an opportunity to think, ‘okay, well what other solutions are out there that we can all benefit from'."

Ms Woodbury says disabled people should be involved in coming up with a solution to the plastic straw issue.

"I think we need to have sophisticated nuanced conversations about what we as a society can do to benefit the environment and prevent further damage to the environment," says Ms Woodbury.

"It's a sign that disabled people need to be a part of that conversation.

"Often we don’t have the access, we don’t have the resources and we don’t have the voice to be a part of those conversations."

Ms Franklin says the disable community is asking for a "sensible middle-road option" to the issue.

"It shouldn’t be a them and us, because disabled people care about the environment just as much as anybody else does."