Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Hey, Starbucks, ditching plastic straws isn't good for people with disabilities

Following on the heels of Seattle's ban of plastic straws and utensils, yesterday Starbucks announced that it would eliminate plastic straws by 2020 in all 28,000 of its stores worldwide. Environmental advocates were excited, as the straws are not recyclable. But it was not good news for people with disabilities, who depend on flexible plastic straws.

Max has yet to master drinking from a straw; the cerebral palsy, which impacts his oral-motor function, makes sucking up liquids and swallowing a challenge for him. He works on it during speech therapy sessions and with us, too. We like the straws at Starbucks; they're pretty sturdy. Ditto for the ones from Burger King. Both come in handy for practicing. Not that I know any mother who'd swipe straws so her child could succeed in slurping.

Starbucks says that straws made from "alternative materials—including paper or compostable plastic" will be available by request for customers who prefer or need a straw. But they could be problematic for people with disabilities.

It takes Max a long time to practice drinking with a straw, which is why paper ones won't work—they'd get soggy and could disintegrate in his mouth, posing a choking hazard. He also can't control his bite so well, and could chomp off a piece of a paper one and choke on it. The same goes for adults with disabilities. Some people who have issues with coordinating swallowing drink through straws for safety reasons; a straw can facilitate swallowing so that a person doesn't aspirate and get liquid in their lungs, potentially leading to pneumonia. 

"Metal, glass and bamboo straws present obvious dangers for people who have difficulty controlling their bite, as well as those with neurological conditions such as Parkinson's," writes Jamie Szymkowiak, cofounder of the Scottish disability rights group One in Five, in a guest post for Greenpeace. "Some disabled people use straws when drinking coffee or eating soup, yet most of the alternatives—including the leading biodegradable straw—are not suitable for drinks over 40 degrees." Carrying around a reusable straw isn't an option for adults with disabilities who may have issues cleaning it. 

Banning straws is trending. The EU recently banned plastic straws and utensils. Starbucks' proposed replacement, strawless lids with a raised part (they've been called "adult sippy cups") aren't going to be an option for people who have issues grasping a cup or controlling the flow of liquid. 

Eliminating straws came in response, Starbucks says, to requests from partners and customers. Says Colleen Chapman, a Starbucks v.p. who oversees sustainability, "Not using a straw is the best thing we can do for the environment." That may be true, but coming up with eco-friendly straws that are sturdy yet flexible and can be used in hot and cold liquids is the best thing you can do for the planet and people with disabilities. Ditto for roping them into a discussion about what works for them.

One of Max's favorite weekend activities is stopping by Starbucks for a milk fix. Straight up. Cold. Starbucks is one of his happy places. I'd like to think it will continue to be welcoming to him, and all people with disabilities. 

Images: Sarah Miller, Flickr/courtesy of Starbucks


  1. I've been seeing a lot of people on facebook getting really upset about the straw issue. Due to my own disability I am in a number of groups where people find this issue relevant. I posted an article from an adult with cerebral palsy who reviewed alternative straws she tried out (silicone and biodegradeable plastic she found worked quite well, metal and paper not so much) and was attacked because they don't work for everyone so we just shouldn't mention them at all. The woman clearly stated in the article that these would not work for everyone but she wanted to share what had worked for her (and what didn't) as someone who needed a straw to drink. I'm not really sure what the issue is with biodegradeable plastic. Restaurants around here have been using biodegradeable plastic for awhile now and this newer stuff is *very* similar tl regular plastic. If you weren't told it was biodegradeable you would never know it was! People also bring up how these alternative straws are not bendy-some are! You can find silicone straws that are bent in different positions if silicone works for you and I have seen very few resturants that have regular bending straws anyways. Most have the straight hard plastic straws but no one is saying that those resturants are ableist. I just find it sad that people who have disabilities are being accused of being ableist, classist, any ism for even bringing up that there are alternatives that could work for some people.

    1. It is sad. It is such an intersectional issue and I don't like how divisive it is being. People should be able to recognize like everything else some alternatives will works for some people while others will not. For me, the straw issue does not effect me, in fact other medical issues require I don't use a straw but I still find the conversations interesting and important. Keep using your voice!


    2. Yes, it's definitely sad that this is so divisive. I'm sorry to hear about that woman with CP getting flack for writing about what works for her—I'm sure what she said was helpful to some others out there. This is clearly not a one-size-fits-all situation! It seems like the main issue with biodegradable choices that exist is that many cannot be used for hot liquids, as Jamie Szymkowiak notes above.

  2. It's unfortunate that the debate over the article referred to in the comments above got so ugly. However, this whole issue has dimensions that go beyond the practical. Environmentalists who hear about this problem are angry because their perfect, seemingly pain-free initiative isn't so perfect anymore. Meanwhile, disabled people who need plastic straws are angry for two reasons. First, they are angry because this is yet another example of progressives who should be natural allies simply forgetting to think about disabled people when coming up with strategies and policy ideas. The second source of anger is the underlying assumption that disabled people making the complaint are ignorant, inflexible, and selfish. That's the implication when people again and again mention "alternatives," as though any of them will be news to disabled people ... as if they haven't looked into other options already, even though this is an everyday crucial issue.

    So yes, there's a lot of emotion, not all of which is really about the policy specifics, and not all of which is especially productive. But if you focus solely on the technical specifics, you're missing a lot of the significance of this issue.

    1. Andrew, once again, you've brought great clarity to the underlying issues at hand. I'm sharing your comment on the blog's Facebook page, where there is more debate.

  3. And by the way, thank you SO much Ellen for writing about this. It would be nice if disabled people were simply taken at their word in discussions like this, but since we aren't, it really does help to have some validation from someone who is adjacent to, but not completely from the disability activist community.


Thanks for sharing!

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