Specifically, I look at the minimal impact of plastic straws on ocean trash compared to other forms of garbage. The video also discusses how plastic straw bans are a form of eco-ableism in that eliminating plastic straws make the lives of people with disabilities much more complicated. As a result of the eco-ableism inherent in plastic straw bans, ridding whole cities of plastic straws could prove problematic.
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It’s 3,000 BCE, and it’s an unbearably hot day in Sumer, a civilization which thrived
in what is now known as southern Iraq.
Under the bright sun, two Sumerians quench their thirst with a nice wheat beer.
But they’ve been having a problem.
Their fermentation process often leaves some unwanted solid byproducts floating at the
top of their drink that are hard to avoid.
Luckily they found a solution: a straw.
Crafted from bone, metal, or even organic materials like reed, Sumerians used the straw
as a way to safeguard their sipping activities from bugs, grain husks, and any sort of sediment
that may have happened to sneak into their drinks.
Fast-forward thousands of years and straws are still very much a staple across the globe.
But now these straws are plastic (and bendy).
A fact to which many environmentalists take umbrage.
So much so, that plastic straw bans have now been enacted in Vancouver, Seattle, as well
as has been proposed by the European.
Despite the recent passage of these bans, I’m curious about their effectiveness.
Today, I want to figure out whether straw bans are effective, but more importantly,
what are the ramifications of banning plastic straws?
One number, at least for me, puts straw bans into a broader context: .025%.
According to Phys.org, plastic straws account for only .025% of the total mass of trash
in the ocean.
According to the Ocean Conservancy’s annual clean up report they pulled 643,542 straws
or roughly .26 metric tonnes from the ocean in 2018.
Scientists Denise Hardesty and Chris Wilcox estimate that there could be as much as 8.3
billion plastic straws on the world’s coastlines.
But when you consider that a straw weighs .4 grams, 8 billion straws equate to roughly
3,320 metric tonnes of plastic.
While that is a large number, it’s remarkably small compared to the 8 million metric tons
of pieces of plastic that enter the ocean annually.
So, straws are just a small part of a much larger ocean trash problem.
In fact, if we look at the make-up of trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, fishing
nets and gear make up 46% of the mass.
So, plastic straws are not a large part of the piling mountain of trash, but they are
For that reason, the possibility of straw bans is cropping up in major metropolises
like New York City.
And part of the reason people are so eager to ban them is that they seem like low hanging
Most people can get away with not using them.
But this seemingly linear connection between banning single-use plastic straws and minimizing
environmental impact is more nuanced upon closer inspection.
In fact, calls for straw bans have experienced strong pushback from the people with disabilities,
and rightfully so.
Eliminating plastic straws is a prime example of eco-ableism.
But to understand straws and ultimately eco-ableism, we need to first discuss spoons.
In a blog post for the University of Alabama’s Institute for Human Rights, Marlee Townsend
describes the concept of spoon theory initially coined by blogger Christine Miserandino.
Townsend writes that within this spoon theory metaphor, able-bodied people wake up every
day with an infinite amount of spoons, while people with disabilities only wake up with
a couple of spoons.
Every activity, like putting on socks or brushing your teeth requires a spoon.
People with disabilities have to be deliberate with how they spend their spoons.
Otherwise, as Townsend writes, they’ll be out of spoons before lunch, immobilized and
So not having access to a bendy straw, requires spending a spoon whenever someone wants to
take a drink.
In short, straw bans represent an instance of eco-ableism because in our haste to frontline
environmental concerns, able-bodied people have made the lives of disabled folks harder
by eliminating a product of convenience.
At this point, you might be saying, “Hey, but what about the other straw alternatives!!”
You’re right, there are currently paper, metal, and bamboo straws out there that restaurants
have started to use, but unfortunately they are not as easy to use, durable, and flexible
as plastic straws.
In an op-ed in The Guardian disability rights activist, Penny Pepper, tackles this issue
She notes that flexibility is one of the key reasons why plastic straws are so useful because
it’s much easier to get the right angle for safe drinking, especially when you can’t
hold a cup or even if another person holds it for you.”
Metal and bamboo straws are often too hard or wide, which can prove problematic for people
with biting issues.
Alternatives also may be too costly, be a choking hazard, cause an allergic reaction,
or might not be able to hold up to high temperatures.
But to believe that people with disabilities are at odds with the environmental movement
would be a mistake.
In her op-ed Pepper goes on to write, “The irritating thing is that somehow disabled
people are tainted as not caring about environmental issues.
The truth, in my experience, is that many actually care more…
I don’t actually want to use harmful chemicals in the interests of my personal care.”
In essence, straw bans seem to be such a small portion of ocean plastic.
The environmental good that bans will create will be minimal.
We have not listened to or considered the effects a straw ban will have on disabled
If indeed, cleaning up ocean trash is our goal, then the management of fishing nets
and refuse, which make up a larger percentage ocean trash, might be a much better use of
The point here is that straws are just a small piece of the plastic problem, and other areas
of waste management would have a greater effect on our global drawdown of plastic use.
Straw bans show environmental action can’t be done unilaterally and without viable alternatives
for those who need them.
It’s not just that marginalized people will have it worse if the environmental movement
continues to ignore and create forms of oppression, it’s that we cannot do any of this work without
Most oppressed communities experience the worst of the world and therefore also tend
to have the most radical solutions and build the most successful movements.
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Hey everyone, it’s Charlie.
Just wanted to let you know that there is a global climate strike happening on September
20th and I’d highly recommend supporting in whatever way you can.
Also, speaking of support, thank you so much to people like Chris Lam who support me on
They’re really the backbone of this whole operation and help bring consistency to my
So thanks again, and I’ll see you in two weeks.
This post was previously published on YouTube.