Mary Ann Langton of West Hartford demonstrates how a plastic straw enables her to drink independently.

To Mary Ann Langton, plastic straws aren’t just a convenience. They are one of the few tools that allow her to lead a more independent life.

Langton, a West Hartford resident, has cerebral palsy,  which impairs her fine motor skills and makes it impossible for her to sip directly from a cup.

With a straw, she can drink without help from an aide.

That little bit of autonomy is precious, and she watched anxiously last spring as the movement to ban the plastic utensil in food venues wound its way through the state legislature.

It ultimately failed, but people in the disabled community aren’t feeling much relief.

As environmentalists plan a comeback for next year – and municipal leaders plow ahead with local reforms – people with disabilities and those who care for them are again fighting to be heard on how the change would pose enormous difficulty.

“Many people need a straw to survive. It’s not just an accoutrement. It’s not just something to make a drink look pretty,” said Melissa Marshall, coordinator of the Connecticut Cross Disability Life Span Alliance, a coalition of advocacy groups. “Some people cannot consume liquid without it.”

That message was nearly drowned out by a competing viewpoint.

Enraged by images of marine wildlife tangled up in plastic, environmentalists have taken aim at several disposable items – bags, straws, even small, stick-like devices used to stop heat and liquid from escaping lidded cups – that are made from the material.

A viral video showing a man pulling a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nose drew nearly 37 million views and more than 84,000 comments. “Say NO to straws,” one person wrote. “Use reusable straws!” said another.

“Many people need a straw to survive. It’s not just an accoutrement. It’s not just something to make a drink look pretty.”

Melissa Marshall
Coordinator, Connecticut Cross Disability Life Span Alliance

When Connecticut lawmakers introduced a bill this year banning single-use plastic straws at restaurants, they were inundated with letters of support. More than 50 pieces of written testimony were submitted to the legislature’s environment committee urging passage. The state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the Connecticut Land Conservation Council and the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities were among those pressing for the ban.

A powerful minority also made its case. Advocates for the disabled community told legislators the prohibition could have dire consequences.

The alternatives suggested – metal, paper or silicone straws – present incredible challenges, they said. Paper straws and other biodegradable options can dissolve too quickly or are easy to bite through for people with limited jaw control. Metal straws are hard and conduct heat and cold. The silicone version is often inflexible. Reusable straws must be washed, an arduous task for some people with disabilities.

Environmentalists are enraged over photos and videos of animals entangled in plastic products.

Langton is one of the people who can’t avoid plastic.

Her dentist has cautioned against using metal straws. When she drinks, she has involuntary movements that cause her to bite down.

“They’ll break my teeth,” Langton, 56, said. The uncontrollable movements mean she could also bite through a paper straw.

The environment committee revised the bill before signing off. A newer version would have prevented full-service restaurants from offering straws unless they were requested by a customer.

But the amended measure couldn’t win enough support in the House or Senate. After a lengthy debate in the House, lawmakers put it on hold indefinitely.

“It fell into the filibuster abyss,” one activist said.

‘Education is needed’

Environmentalists are planning another push next year, buoyed by the success of bans in Seattle, Miami Beach, San Francisco and Santa Monica, among other communities. Legislators in California passed a law in 2018 that prohibits full-service restaurants from automatically handing out plastic straws. Customers there must request them.

In Connecticut, the towns of Westport and Stonington recently banned single-use plastic straws at local eateries, and similar proposals are under review in Stamford and Norwalk.

Melissa Gates, Northeast regional manager for the Surfrider Foundation, a national environmental nonprofit, pledged to fight for a ban in Connecticut next year. She came out in favor of this year’s unsuccessful effort.

“The straws that get blown out of trash haulers or littered intentionally end up finding their way into the water,” she said.  Along with being a pollutant, Gates said, “more and more marine critters are winding up on the shore with bellies full of plastic.”

One goal of her nonprofit is to “stop the production of these low-grade plastics altogether, because there’s just no need for them.”

Though well-intended, that perspective has left some people with disabilities feeling isolated.

“I’ve heard this from a lot of my disabled friends: ‘People are making me feel guilty about accessing stuff I need to survive,’” said Kathy Flaherty, executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project. “They’ll say, ‘I’m well aware of the amount of plastic waste I’m generating, but what am I supposed to do?’”

“I’ve heard this from a lot of my disabled friends: ‘People are making me feel guilty about accessing stuff I need to survive.’ They’ll say, ‘I’m well aware of the amount of plastic waste I’m generating, but what am I supposed to do?’”

Kathy Flaherty
Executive Director, Connecticut Legal Rights Project

Stories like Langton’s and so many others can get lost in the crush of environmental advocacy, said Marshall, the coordinator of the Connecticut Cross Disability Life Span Alliance. While the legislature’s environment committee received dozens of letters supporting a straw ban, only a handful of people wrote in to defend the disabled community.

“I think more education is needed,” Marshall said. “Some people just aren’t aware of it yet.”

Marshall said she fears any limitation on straws, whether it’s a prohibition or an ask-and-receive policy. Restaurants that limit their supply may eventually stop carrying them altogether, and people who request a straw may be asked intrusive questions about their medical condition.

“The reality is, we see this as a slippery slope,” she said.

Renewed advocacy

As environmental enthusiasts prepare for the next legislative session, disability advocates are placing calls and writing emails to lawmakers. Rep. Mike Demicco, a co-chairman of the environment committee, recently met with disability champions at their request.

That advocacy is also growing at the local level. Activists are reaching out to town and city leadership to share the unintended consequences of straw bans.

Norwalk politicians in April unveiled a proposal to prohibit single-use plastic straws, but council members said this month that they’re rewriting the plan amid input from the disability community.

The latest version would require customers to request straws in food establishments, instead of receiving them automatically. The council has yet to vote on the ordinance.

Kathy Flaherty, executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, is urging lawmakers to weigh the unintended consequences of a straw ban. Julia Werth /

“We are addressing those concerns by putting in revised language,” said Tom Livingston, the council president. “It’s an important issue.”

Disability advocates have also picked up an unwelcome ally: President Donald Trump. In defiance of environmental concerns, staffers on Trump’s re-election campaign are selling plastic straws. So far, they’ve raised more than $200,000.

The president has been a frequent critic of the climate crisis.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Flaherty. “I don’t think they’re coming from a good and honest place. I don’t think they care about disabled people.”

Even more discouraging, she said, is the idea that straws have become a partisan issue. That’s true at the federal level, but it’s also apparent in Connecticut.

As the legislative session gets underway next year, Flaherty hopes lawmakers will consider all angles of the straw debate.

“People come at these things with the absolute best of intentions, but they don’t think about the unintended outcomes,” she said. “They don’t always think about the impact.”

Jenna is CT Mirror’s Health Reporter, focusing on health access, affordability, quality, equity and disparities, social determinants of health, health system planning, infrastructure, processes, information systems, and other health policy. Before joining CT Mirror Jenna was a reporter at The Hartford Courant for 10 years, where she consistently won statewide and regional awards. Jenna has a Master of Science degree in Interactive Media from Quinnipiac University and a Bachelor or Arts degree in Journalism from Grand Valley State University.

Join the Conversation


  1. Another alternative is pasta straws. I have seen restaurants in Europe with pasta straws, basically long tubes of ziti. They are biodegradable and edible. I’m not sure if the disabled community would be able to use them but it’s worth a shot!

  2. Paper straws used to be commonplace. Perhaps the industry should develop a stronger straw that still offers biodegradable capability. This issue alone should not be the impetus to derail efforts to reduce our dependency on plastics.

  3. Stainless steel straws, which can be found in many home accessory and kitchen gadget stores, seem to be a wonderful *resusable* alternative to both plastic and paper straws! There are definitely environmentally responsible alternatives to plastic.

    1. You didn’t read about the safety hazards of these things? To say nothing of the health implications of trying to keep them clean and sanitary.

    2. Also, if a person has a seizure while using a metal straw that person could sustain a serious injury such as broken teeth, a puncture in their mouth, or damage somewhere else on the face. Politicians need to stop interferring negatively on the lives of the disabled.

  4. Straws are but a speck of dust in a universe of plastic. People with no meaning or purpose in their lives jump on the bandwagon to feel smug and important. Denying others the opportunity to make their own decisions gives them power. And THAT is what this is all about.
    The power of using government to tell people how to run their lives.

  5. The best solution would be for a tyrannical state government and environmental nutcases, who produce or add NOTHING to this society to leave us alone. There is nothing wrong with plastic straws or plastic bags when disposed of properly. I think I might buy as many as I can and hand them out at grocery stores.

  6. “The president has been a frequent critic of the climate crisis.” I won’t even get into how poorly written that is. It presupposes that “the climate crisis” is a proven fact, when in reality it is nothing but an opinion, and to some people a religious dogma. It also fails to state what the alleged connection is between plastic waste and alleged global warming (two separate and distinct topics). True journalism is dead.

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