Dianne Laurine, 75, remembers a time when straws were made of paper. They were ineffective for drinking, because a lack of jaw control associated with cerebral palsy caused her to bite through them. Her handyman father crafted a reusable solution by cutting rubber tubing to make straws, but those were unsanitary. “It was awful … I can’t get them clean,” Laurine recalls her father’s invention.
But the advent of plastic straws in the 1960s changed her life. The single-use plastic items offered durability and flexibility that allowed Laurine to hydrate with greater ease, and they didn’t require cleaning. “I can’t drink without them,” Laurine says on a Friday afternoon, as her caretaker Bill Reeves sits beside her at Queen Anne’s Uptown Espresso and repeats her words for clarity. Plastic straws are so essential to her lifestyle, in fact, that Laurine carries a few in a backpack that’s strapped to her wheelchair at all times.
While non-disabled people often consider plastic straws an amenity if not an environmental nuisance, they are a necessity for many people with disabilities who rely on the bendable tubes to drink fluids or take medicines independently. For those with mobility impairments like Laurine, it’s difficult to hold cups without spilling the beverages, and alternatives to plastic straws made out of bamboo and metal can cause injury if they unintentionally bite down on them.
Her dependency on plastic straws became all the more acute a couple of weeks ago when she learned while watching the news that Seattle would become the first major U.S. city to ban plastic straws, utensils, and cocktail picks on July 1. “I was mad,” she says. A filmmaker by trade, and commissioner with the advocacy group Seattle Commission for People with disAbilities, the Shoreline resident is only two houses away from the city border, and often dines in Seattle.
Cities and businesses throughout the world have joined the strawless bandwagon in record speed throughout the past few years in response to public outcry about their contribution to ocean pollution. One 2014 study cited over 250,000 tons of plastic waste in the ocean. In an effort to reduce the environmental impact of single-use plastic, Davis and San Luis Obispo, Calif., and Miami Beach, Fla., passed ordinances to reduce or ban plastic straw use; New York has also proposed legislation to outlaw plastic straws. On July 9, Starbucks announced that it would eliminate single-use plastic straws from its stores worldwide by 2020 by offering recyclable strawless lids, or straws made out of paper or compostable plastic.
“For our partners and customers, this is a significant milestone to achieve our global aspiration of sustainable coffee, served to our customers in more sustainable ways,” Kevin Johnson, president and chief executive officer for Starbucks, said in a statement.
Yet people with disabilities and their advocates say that the bans disproportionately impact marginalized communities who rely on straws in their everyday life. The issue has come to a head in Seattle, where the disability community contends that it was not consulted during the city’s rule-making process.
“Requiring people with disabilities to treat a routine fast-food trip as something that requires planning and supplies is an unplanned failure in equity, when these restaurants could just as easily offer them upon request to individuals who need them. Disability is already very expensive, and many people are forced to carry around large amounts of equipment or types of medication and devices. Adding another specialized device, simply for them to be able to hydrate themselves, is an undue burden, and an unfortunate effect of this law,” wrote the Seattle Commission for People with disAbilities in a letter sent to the City Council on June 27.
However, Seattle Public Utilities spokespeople are adamant that the ban would not affect people with disabilities. “We have no intention of making plastic flexible straws unavailable to people who need them,” Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) Spokesperson Andy Ryan told Seattle Weekly.
The ban originated from a 2008 ordinance designed to phase out single-use plastic items by replacing them with recyclable or compostable items. Businesses that don’t comply with the ban could face a $250 fine.
SPU started its business outreach and education on the harms of single-plastic use in March, 2017. Susan Fife-Ferris, division director of SPU Solid Waste Planning and Program Management, says that the city relied heavily on Lonely Whale for information about the straw ban’s impact on people with disabilities. The ocean advocacy organization started a campaign in September 2017 called “Strawless in Seattle” that involved 150 businesses in the city and resulted in 2.3 million plastic straws being removed from Seattle.
“Our work with the disabled community happened well in advance of the campaign in Seattle,” says Dune Ives, executive director of Lonely Whale. The advisory committee that helped inform their campaigns to eliminate single-use straws was a “loosely organized group of individuals that we connected to early on to make sure that we understood what straws worked for them, and what straws don’t work for them.” Ives says that she sent straws to a few people, and found that for some people with disabilities, silicone-based or compostable plastic straws work best. “There’s always more you can do,” she adds, noting that they had a small team with limited resources at the time. Lonely Whale is working with other cities throughout the nation to implement their own ordinances to ban single-use plastics.
Using the information from outreach and Lonely Whale, SPU published a director’s rule approved by Seattle Public Utilities General Manager/CEO Mami Hara on May 29, 2018, which provided an exemption for people with disabilities from being subject to the ban. The rule contains a waiver, effective from July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019, allowing “disposable flexible plastic drinking straws when needed by customers due to medical or physical conditions and for whom flexible compostable paper straws are unsuitable. Otherwise, straws must be compostable or designed to be reusable.” Ryan told Seattle Weekly that the waiver will continue to be renewed after the 2019 deadline.
While SPU points to the waiver as sufficient protection for people with disabilities who need straws, the disability community argues that the exemption was not made clear to businesses. Case in point: SPU directed businesses to use their entire inventory of plastic utensils and straws by July 1 to comply with the ban. Moreover, it does not list any exemptions for people with disabilities in a guidance letter. “Provide utensils and straws only on request, and use dispensers for customers to select their own utensils and straws, if not already a current practice,” the guidance states, adding that those items must be compostable or recyclable.
Shaun Bickley, a commissioner for the Seattle Commission for People with disAbilities, calls the conflicting messages misleading. “What they’re telling us as a commission, or the City Council, seems to be very different from what they’re telling the restaurants,” Bickley, who prefers gender-neutral pronouns, says as they sit across from Laurine at a wooden table in the coffee shop.
The exemption rollout seems to indicate that the city’s plan was ill-advised and that the necessity of plastic straws for people with disabilities was overlooked, Bickley posits. “It seems to me that they’re offering a retroactive rule that ‘Oh, it covers those people,’ ” they add. “But they never communicated it to begin with, so an exemption is only useful if people know about it and will actually act on it.”
Although Bickley, who is autistic, does not need to use plastic straws to hydrate, they fear that the ban could still affect them because they are allergic to wheat. Compostable utensils and straws are made from the starch of plants like corn, potatoes, or wheat. They say that they called about 15 fast-food restaurants and coffee shops throughout the city that Bickley and some of their friends with disabilities frequent, and found that none of the establishments were aware that they should keep some plastic straws in stock for people who need them. Additionally, all stores except two were unaware of the composition of the compostable straws and utensils, and therefore couldn’t guard their customers against allergic reactions to certain products. In fact, one coffee shop that Bickley says they called made it “pretty clear that as soon as their current stock was gone … they would not be ordering more plastic straws.”
The idea of having to return to paper straws leaves Laurine in a tizzy. “My experience as a caregiver is that they tend to disintegrate and dissolve,” Reeves chimes in. “They don’t hold their shapes.” Although the ban applies only to restaurants and businesses that serve food, Laurine is concerned that she won’t be able to access straws if she ever forgets her stash while she’s out in public, or that the ban might one day expand to grocery stores.
Although only about 6 percent of Seattle’s population under 65 years old are disabled, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data, Tod Steward says that businesses shouldn’t make people with disabilities bring their own utensils to a store. Steward—a communications specialist at the Northwest Center, a nonprofit that offers early intervention and employment services for people with disabilities throughout Washington—notes that people with disabilities must navigate hindrances that are often invisible to non-disabled people. For instance, high thresholds at front doors can be difficult or impossible to traverse for Steward, who has arthrogryposis, a rare syndrome characterized by joint stiffness.
He keeps a bundle of straws at his work desk because it can often be difficult to pick up a glass. Steward demonstrates by positioning a glass of water between both hands and unsteadily lifts it to his chin before placing it back on the table. “They have to always consider people like me before implementing that, and how it will really affect their constituents and how it affects people,” Steward says, adding that he has not run into any issues at restaurants yet. Since he was unaware of the exemption for people with disabilities, he says that he stocked up on plastic straws at QFC before the ban was implemented so that he could continue drinking hot chocolate, one of his favorite beverages.
“We probably should have been more explicit. We probably didn’t really realize being out in the front of this that that would be something that we would need to highlight so much,” Fife-Ferris concedes about the exemption. “We figured that businesses on an ongoing basis provide reasonable accommodations for their customers that need them, so we felt that that would continue. And we have talked with businesses, and talked about maybe keeping a supply.”
In the meantime, SPU is adamant that it will continue its outreach to businesses to add clarification about the exemption for people with disabilities. “We are asking that anyone who has been denied (or knows of someone who has been denied) a flexible plastic straw as a result of the new Seattle ordinance should call or email utility waste prevention and product stewardship manager Sego Jackson, firstname.lastname@example.org, 206-615-0706,” SPU Spokesperson Ryan wrote in an email to Seattle Weekly. “We will attempt to resolve the problem. We apologize for any confusion.”