A straw:  a convenient drinking apparatus or a vital life source?

Plastic-Free YYC recently connected with the Disability Action Hall to hear their thoughts on our Last Straw Calgary campaign, a movement to reduce plastic waste produced in the hospitality industry by asking restaurants and bars to serve straws only by request to those who require them.  So of course, it only made sense to bring people who need straws into the conversation.

The campaign was presented at a weekly Action Hall meeting to hear from the members themselves.  The group understands this campaign is a step towards making our planet a better place.  However, they expressed concern about the effect the straw-free movement may have on the health, safety, and dignity of those who require straws. They feel an increased dialog is needed to ensure campaigns, like the Last Straw Calgary, are inclusive and accessible by all.  Both Plastic-Free YYC and the Action Hall agree that more conversations between environmental organisations/campaigns, the hospitality and healthcare industries, and our governing bodies need to take place to better understand the impact “straw-free” may have on people with limited mobility or who suffer from strokes, choking disorders, and seizures.

While the folks at the Action Hall feel that the intention to move away from single-use straws is good, they said many things are not always considered when discussing the straw-free initiative.  Members of the group shared the many differing reasons of why a straw may be required.  From allergies to limited mobility to teeth sensitivity, there are many reasons why someone may need a straw and it’s not always visually apparent. Sometimes people just need a straw and should not be questioned about why they need it.  The growing, global straw-free movement can sometimes overlook this aspect which is why our Last Straw Calgary campaign encourages participating businesses to always have straws available.  Our campaign also aims to ensure the straw-on-request service is never judgmental, always respecting the patron’s privacy when they request a straw.

The group also highlighted the importance of what straws are made of and why some straws simply don’t work with certain disabilities.  There are major health and safety considerations needed when choosing a reusable straw.  The group pointed out that many people who experience seizures or involuntary movements could seriously hurt themselves using a reusable metal or reusable glass straw.  Metal, glass, or hard plastic could result in serious injury such as cracked teeth, cut lips, abrasions, poked eyes or worse.  Even paper straws may not be the best solution if they break apart, turning into a choking hazard.  There’s also the public health aspect of straws to consider; many hospitals, hospices, and other healthcare facilities must use disposable items to ensure a clean and sterile environment for their patients.  As we move away from the single-use plastic straw, consideration needs to be taken on how safe the replacements are.  We strongly believe that the straw-free movement is more than just simply removing the disposal straw from service; the bigger picture includes industry stepping up to make necessary changes and innovations to rethink and redesign the current single-use straw.  

When discussing the straw-free initiative, we also often overlook how unattainable sustainable options can be for those who do not have the monetary means to purchase fancy new metal or glass straws.  It is often forgotten that online shopping can be a luxury.  Many people living in poverty or on a low income, may not have credit cards and spending money on reusable straws may not be realistic.  Because straws are viewed as such a frivolous and trivial throw-away items they are not viewed as a significant medical expense.  Both groups agree, there is opportunity for government to consider redefining straws as a critical medical tool that could be subsidized. As part of our campaign, changing the view we as a society has of straws and their functionality has been important; A straw is more than just a convenient drinking tool, it is a life source.

Also discussed was recycling of plastic straws and why this is not possible. Unfortunately, the majority of the disposable plastic straws we use cannot be recycled due to their small size and light weight. In fact, plastics are technically not recyclable, but down-cycled to lower and lower grades of plastic, until they cannot be used again (usually in straw form).  Plastic straws are generally made of the low-grade plastic or plastic that is in its final stage of the down-cycling process. Which then begs the question: what about biodegradable straws? These are also not a good answer, as biodegradable plastics still take 100s of years to degrade and still leach toxins into our earth while they do so. There are no regulations around biodegradable plastics.  Our campaign suggests using compostable straws when requiring a disposable straw.  Compostable straws when disposed of properly and composted in a commercial composting facility, reduce the amount of waste sent to our landfills.  There are many different types of compostable straws to choose from including paper, pasta, candy, bamboo, plant-based polymers, and now pepperoni sticks! However, this brings us back to our last point in which not all straw designs work for those concerned disabilities.

The Action Hall asked Plastic-Free YYC “Why straws? Are there other single-use, disposable plastics out there that we can focus on removing first?” The group pointed out to us that many of the initiatives to reduce plastic waste tend to focus on or target disposable items (like straws) that are very important to people with disabilities.  While it might seem that this is the case, the reasoning behind a focus on straws is simply based on peoples’ abilities (or lack thereof) to change their habits.  Generally speaking, habits can be hard to break and create.  Using a straw is a habit that the general population has become used to, however the majority of people may not need a straw.  Changing the habit of using a straw is one of the easiest behaviours to adopt for the majority who are taking steps towards reducing plastic waste. It simply requires one to say “no straw please” and to not use one.

The mass population has taken advantage of the functionality and convenience of the straw and campaigns like ours, help shed light on this fact.  We hope to teach people to respect the straw and leave it for those who truly need it.  We focus on inspiring all individuals to make simple changes, where they can in their lives, to reduce single-use plastics.  If we, as a society, hope to truly make a difference to reduce our plastic waste, save our oceans and our only home, we need to work together and ensure everyone is included in the conversation. Plastic pollution is everyone’s problem and everyone’s responsibility to fix, therefore the solutions we find need to be inclusive and accessible by all. 

This collaboration has truly allowed both groups to foster a full circle conversation, bringing about a better respect for the straw and its functionality as a tool rather than a nicety or convenience.  Going forward we hope to work with each other on unique informational videos, fostering conversations involving the government and encouraging industry to be change makers. With this partnership we look forward to collaborating on ways to increase the dialog with all Calgarians, promote inclusiveness throughout the straw-free movement, and work together to make Calgary the first major prairie city to go plastic-free.

By Briana Loughlin
In collaboration with Colleen Huston, Disability Action Hall
July 30, 2018

A huge thanks to all the members of the Action Hall who shared their valued opinions, thoughts and feedback to help create this post. 

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