Best of 2019: As plastic straw ban effort persists, advocates for disabled community fight to be heard
Note: This story was originally published on July 31, 2019.
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.”
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.
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?’”
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.
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.
“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.”
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