Accessibility and environmentalism (on plastic, accessibility, and ableism in the eco movement)


Theoretically, I run a plastic free shop, so you would think that I am team #noplastic, wouldn’t you? But that’s not completely true, and for good reason. While nearly everything you can buy at Worthwhyle is free from plastic, I think it’s important to critically examine the plastics issue before getting on any soap boxes about banning it all completely. So let’s get it out of the way and have a little chat about plastic, accessibility, and eco activism!

Plastic isn’t the enemy


Plastic is an amazing product, and many plastic goods help millions of people every day live better, more fulfilling lives.


Single use plastics have quite the bad rap, and much of that is deserved. While I avoid them as much as possible in my own life, there is a level of privilege in being able to even try do that. Often the options for purchase that come in something else - glass, metal, tin - are more expensive, or not as widely available in every store.


Single use plastics are important to a variety of people, including the disabled and differently abled, people with mobility issues, those on lower incomes, those with limited access to shops that don’t use as much plastic, and more.


Pre-chopped veggies wrapped in (single-use) plastic at the grocery store are useful to those who don’t have the mobility or wrist strength to chop their own, for example.


Why plastic straws shouldn’t be banned


Plastic straws are a cheap, safe, and cost-effective tool for people who otherwise could aspirate liquids into their lungs, or people who are too weak to lift a full cup of a liquid (which could be very hot!) to their mouths.


Metal straws can be an allergy risk, and an injury risk for people with soft palates, plus they can be cost prohibitive.


Paper straws can be a choking hazard because paper dissolves and can be sucked up (and again, aspirated), and it’s also not a great material for hot liquids - no surprise there.


Glass, again, high cost and possible injury risk.


People with autoimmune disorders use their own reusable straws rather than risk using a single use one that someone may have sneezed on.  


Do you see where I’m going with this? And this is just the plastic straw conversation!


Who is truly responsible for plastic waste in the world?


Today the onus of environmental responsibility more often than not falls on individual people making individual choices. This has a tiny effect! Alternatively, more change would come if governments held entire industries and big corporations to account. The recent discussions on straw bans are a fantastic example of this phenomenon of pushing responsibility for saving the environment on to individual consumers, and it works to further marginalise an already marginalised community.


Even making straws “request only” isn’t a great option. This move would mean that people with disabilities are asked to prove their disability to others, which...no. How horrible would that be? Who are the gatekeepers of others’ disabilities?  


People who benefit the most from the use of plastic straws should not be forced to suffer and possibly even die, just so the eco activist community can feel as if they are doing great work. Your work is not great if it is not inclusive of EVERYONE.


The burden of accessibility should not be pushed onto an already overburdened group of people.


Bigger fish to fry, so to speak


The authors of a 2016 study in Marine Policy asked a wide array of experts to rank the items that pose the greatest threats to animal well-being, and found that "fishing-related gear, balloons, and plastic bags were estimated to pose the greatest entanglement risk to marine fauna. In contrast, experts identified a broader suite of items of concern for ingestion, with plastic bags and plastic utensils ranked as the greatest threats."


As it stands, straws constitute only 0.025% of ocean waste, while 46% of the rubbish in the ocean is fishing nets - nearly half. And while less than one percent of this huge number still accounts for millions upon millions of straws out at sea, focussing on straws is perhaps not the best use of our time here, contextually.



How to do inclusive environmental activism


Environmental activism is worthy and valid and worthwhile (see what I did there), but if your activism is performative and exclusionary it’s not particularly good activism. In fact, it’s bad. I said it! Bad!


Some things that actually could make a difference, that aren’t banning straws:


  • Companies need to reexamine the plastics they use, particularly supermarkets. Can they use less, and use compostable plastics when possible? (I know they could, on both accounts).
  • Pubs, bars and restaurants could have both plastic AND biodegradable options, as this excludes no one and allows people to make their own decisions while not shaming those that do need plastic straws. Inclusive!
  • Governments could work to make sure that recycling is easier and accessible, and that it’s actually being recycled and not shipped off to China (who isn’t actively accepting the West’s recycling anymore anyway).

Agitate agitate agitate


Basically as with everything else, Big Business is to blame and everyone else needs to do the best that they can given their own needs and abilities. If you don’t need a straw, or pre-chopped veg wrapped in plastic, or the pre-peeled orange in a little box, then don’t use it. But don’t waste time judging others for their use of single use plastic items unless you fully, truly know their circumstances.


Take responsibility for yourself, and keep agitating for the big players in the game - governments and companies, that is - to do better, because we as consumers demand it. Instead of shaming disabled consumers who rely on straws, we can work to hold producers of plastics financially responsible for their waste.


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