Senate File 756 was recently introduced in the Minnesota Senate. It would make the unrequested distribution of plastic straws by places of accommodation a petty misdemeanor. The passage of this legislation would be a significant affront to the rights of Minnesotans living with disabilities.
Over the past few years, the environmentalist lobby has made much progress with accomplishments such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. Now, faced with a different political climate and the current occupant of the White House, they are taking matters into their own hands where they can, including advocating for cutting pollution like plastic waste. But they are ignoring the unintended consequences, including in the case of plastic straw bans, which in part became popular because of a viral video of a sea turtle that was injured by one.
While protecting our natural resources is important, straw bans are severely misguided. In their shortsighted rush to ban plastic straws, people have missed two critical facts.
First, according to a study published in Marine Policy, straws account for less than 0.03 percent by weight of plastic pollution entering the oceans every year, so the straw ban is symbolic at best.
Second, this is a quality-of-life issue for individuals with disabilities. Able-bodied people see straws as ubiquitous and they don’t think about how essential these simple devices are for anyone with a disability.
Without straws, it’s impossible for millions of disabled people to go anywhere without worrying about being able to drink, about becoming dehydrated, spilling their drinks or aspirating liquid into their lungs. Individuals with autism also experience oral sensory problems that often are alleviated by the use of a straw.
Where able-bodied people see waste, my community sees a simple device that opens up the world to people with disabilities.
Proponents of the bans will suggest that we use alternatives to plastic straws, such as paper, metal, glass or biodegradable straws. But all of those options have major drawbacks for people with disabilities. For example, metal straws are unusable for people with tremors or sensory issues. Paper straws do not work because they often disintegrate before an individual can finish and they don’t handle heat well. Straws made of sugar cane are problematic for diabetics.
Others have suggested that we carry around straws, instead of getting them from restaurants, but that has problems of its own because it’s another expense for disabled people, who are already likely to suffer lower income and extremely high medical costs. Plus, there’s no way for those straws to be kept sanitary.
The authors argue that the bill language doesn’t actually explicitly ban plastic straws, and that one can request a straw or establishments can use any other sort of straw. But business owners aren’t going to buy paper straws for some people and plastic straws for others. They’re going to get one or the other because of the economic advantages. If plastic straws are more heavily regulated, which one do you think they’re going to buy?
The burden of reducing plastic waste by a measly 0.03 percent should not fall on disabled people, who already face barriers to participating in the daily activities of their communities. Yes, we should reduce pollution, but it is unethical to force already marginalized groups to pay the price. We need to search for alternative environmentally friendly solutions. Blanket plastic straw bans are irresponsible, unnecessary, unreasonable and immoral.
Noah McCourt, of Waconia, is policy director of the Minnesota Autism Council and a member of the Governor’s Council on Disabilities. He has chaired the state subcommittee on children’s mental health since fall 2017.