Instead of banning plastic straws, we’ll need to require them

In the last few months, a number of cities have banned plastic straws. The goal was to cut down on plastic litter ending up in the ocean. However, for some people with disabilities, plastic straws are an important tool that they need to drink.

Despite this, many businesses are jumping on the bandwagon and phasing out plastic straws. With alternatives such as paper or metal not working in all situations, the loss of plastic straws means a safety hazard or a loss of independence. Therefore, instead of banning straws, we’ll need to do the opposite — requiring businesses to have them available for people who need them.

For people who can’t lift a cup, straws are needed.
For this reason, alternatives proposed such as Starbuck’s “sippy cup lid” don’t provide adequate accessibility.

A cup, even with a sippy lid, doesn’t work if one can’t lift the cup. Straws do.

Reusable and paper straws each have their limitations.
While there are straws made from all sorts of other materials, there are situations — especially with hot or thick drinks —where only the humble plastic straw works.

Metal straws can cause pain when bitten on, and can cause burns when used with hot drinks. Reusable silicone straws are soft, but harder to clean and sanitize. Single use paper straws dissolve when used with hot drinks or thick drinks such as smoothies.

Soggy, disintegrating paper straw during smoothie test:

Note deformed tip of straw due to smoothie soaking into the paper.

As businesses shift away from plastic straws, instead of banning straws, it will be necessary to require them.
Just like how businesses are required to have accessible bathrooms, plastic straws should be viewed as part of what’s required for a restaurant to be fully accessible. This means that even if most customers don’t use straws, they should still be available for people who need them. “Straws on Request”, or having straws available at the counter next to the napkins, are ways to do this.

So, why did plastic straws become a target for environmentalists?
It began with beach cleanups. Along with cigarette butts, bottle caps, and plastic bags, straws were one of the most common pieces of litter. Their shape meant they were particularly hazardous to wildlife such as sea turtles.

Image of bird eating a straw on a beach full of plastic litter.

Are people really just tossing used straws on the beach?
Probably not intentionally. That said, plastic straws are lightweight and aerodynamic, and it’s easy for them to blow out of an overflowing garbage can.

Garbage cans fill up quickly with takeout containers, and once overflowing, wind blows away straws.

The key to reducing straw pollution isn’t banning straws. It’s reducing waste.
In the Zero Waste movement, we look at data to determine where the biggest waste reduction opportunities are. Straws aren’t one of them. In household trash, most of it is recyclable boxes and containers that end up in the trash instead of the recycling. Better sorting is where efforts should start.

Straws —not even 0.01% of the total trash by volume or weight.

To tackle the overflowing public garbage can problem, we got to go after the thing that’s taking up most of the space — takeout containers. One approach is to shift from disposable plates to reusable ones for dine-in customers — here’s an example. Another is reusable takeout clamshell containers shared by many businesses in a city.

See any straws here? Me neither. A week’s worth of trash for 58 people fills up a 10'x10' square. Straws are completely insignificant when it comes to volume.

If you thought straws were a big issue, wait until cars come up.
There’s also a big push in the environmental movement to reduce car use, with talk of banning cars from cities, or banning new buildings in downtown areas from having parking.
Unlike straws, cars are a statistically significant resource use and pollution issue. That said, cars provide accessibility to many people, and we’ve recognized this with requirements for parking lots to have spaces reserved for people with disabilities.

Should the future be one where car ownership and parking lots becomes rare in our cities, we’ll need solutions such as accessible transit and rideshare, as well as curbside accessible parking spaces. We’ll also need to bring homes and businesses closer together so that vehicle trips aren’t needed for every activity.

An accessible parking space and sidewalk curb ramp.

Artist and Designer in Berkeley, California