Banning disposable plastics – not a simple solution

Professor Kate Sang, Professor of Gender and Employment Studies and Disability in SoSS’ Business Management Department, was recently recruited to the Scottish Government expert panel on single use plastics. in this blog, she argues that “ban plastic straws” is a simplistic and potentially ineffectual tool in the fight against ocean pollution, which may harm and disadvantage disabled people.

Following the broadcast of Blue Planet 2, there has been an increasing interest amongst the general public on how to reduce ocean plastics. Images of a turtle with a plastic straw stuck in his or her nostril, a seahorse carrying a cotton bud and marine mammals caught in fishing nets have understandably upset viewers. We can see increased efforts on behalf of communities to clear up their beaches, and charities such as Surfers against Sewage have seen increased interest in their work. Emma Shepherd reported in The Guardian that school children have been so moved by images of marine life in distress that they are putting pressure on their parents to change their use single use plastics.

In response to this popular demand to reduce single use plastic consumption, politicians including the Prime Minister Theresa May have begun steps to ban the sale and use of disposable plastics including plastic straws, disposable cups and cotton buds. This, on the surface, may have some appeal. If plastic straws are a problem, then ban them and solve the problem. Save marine wildlife by banning straws.

But this just creates another problem. Many disabled people rely on plastic straws in order to be able to consume liquids while out and about. Other reusable straws are unsuitable; for example, they require sanitation after each use which is not practical in public. Think about whether you would want to try to clean a straw in a public bathroom! Metal straws can harm teeth and are not flexible enough for those with limited motor control. Paper disintegrates if you don’t drink fast enough. Single use plastic straws are an accessibility need for many people, including disabled people, elderly people and even those with sensitive teeth!

Banning straws will make the lives of many disabled and elderly people even harder than they already are.

Perhaps we can have plastic straws but on demand or exemptions for certain groups? But this then risks the policing of disability and whether a customer looks disabled enough to quality for a straw. It is these sorts of concerns I intend to bring into my work as an expert advisor to the Scottish Government’s expert panel on single use plastics

The bigger issue is that plastic straws are a drop in the proverbial ocean of plastic waste. As Adam Minter has pointed out, plastic straws are a minimal issue, especially when compared with fishing nets which are causing considerable damage and harm to ocean wildlife. A focus on consumer behaviour individualises this global problem. Disabled people, who use straws, pre-prepared vegetables or grated cheese are not responsible for killing ocean life. The needs of disabled people and the urgent global need to protect our wildlife and ecosystems are not incompatible agendas. If we embed the needs of disabled people into our decision-making, we can solve the dreadful problem of plastic pollution in our oceans, without causing harm to already-marginalised people.

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