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July 13 2018

Who Loses When Products Are Banned

by Julie Gunlock

So, by now, you’ve probably heard that using a straw is socially and environmentally unacceptable. Relying on flawed research done by a nine-year-old child, Starbucks responded to this new reality by announcing a phase out of all straws and a change from regular straw-friendly lids to cups that come with a sippy top. Isn’t that going to be fun? Looking like a toddler while sipping your adult coffee drink. Good times.

Turns out though, these new and improved sippy tops aren’t much of an improvement. Reason Magazineinvestigated the new tops, finding:

Yet missing from this fanfare was the inconvenient fact that by ditching plastic straws, Starbucks will actually be increasing its plastic use. As it turns out, the new nitro lids that Starbucks is leaning on to replace straws are made up of more plastic than the company's current lid/straw combination.

Excuse me for a minute while I ROFL.

What’s also missing is Starbucks’ concern for the disabled and elderly—two demographics that need straws. Washington DC-based writer and disability advocate Karin Hitselberger wrote about her dismay that more and more companies are jumping on the anti-straw bandwagon, at the those who actually need traditional staws:

I was about to enjoy my morning cup of tea at my favorite local coffee shop when I realized they were out of plastic straws. For most people, this would be a minor annoyance or inconvenience, but for me it was a crisis. For me, a disabled person, no straw means no drink — if I try drinking my tea without a straw, I risk choking or burning myself with the hot liquid. Not willing to take the risk, I offered my tea to my friend, knowing I just couldn’t drink it.

The response to Hitselberger’s concerns usually take two forms: 

The “well, there are reusable and paper straws! Those are super great and don’t kill seagulls. YAY!” response, to which Hitselberger responds:

While reusable straws and redesigned cups may be a great solution for most people, they are not an option for many people with disabilities. For example, paper straws, which are most often cited as the best alternative, are not temperature safe, often dissolve in water and can become a choking hazard. As for lids designed to be used without a straw, they require the cup to be lifted by the user, which many people cannot do.

Or the “well, Starbucks and other stores willprovide a straw if someone asks for one!”

Let’s just imagine how fun that conversation is going to be for the disabled or elderly person who now has to explainto the 16-year old barista that they need a straw because they have a problem feeling their mouth or that they have an issue seeing the teeny hole where they’re supposed to put their mouth, or that they need a straw because they don’t want to burn themselves taking in too large a mouthful…etc. etc. You get it. 

And it isn’t hard to imagine the sort of scenario where some smug and environmentally concerned barista, upon being asked for a straw, delivers an impassioned speech on why straws are KILLERS!

I’ve heard the concerns myself. Right after I wrote about Starbucks’ knuckleheaded new policy on straws for The Federalist, a friend, who recently had brain surgery, wrote me this email: 

I had my first encounter with a paper straw this weekend! LOL After I unwrapped that bad baby and put it in my water, what do you think happened next? Anyone with a brain (since I’ve had brain surgery, I’m legally allowed to make brain jokes) knows it’s going to come apart and it did!  So I went through at least 10 paper straws while I was at the restaurant. So much for conserving! One plastic straw, which I’m pretty sure plastic is recyclable, vs 10 paper straws. Anyhoo. Some will tell me to just drink out of the cup but I now have a disability. One of the many is I can’t feel my mouth, and don’t know if I ever will again, so using a straw helps me not drool in public. I get it. All restaurants don’t have to cater to my disabilities but I seriously don’t get what was wrong with plastic straws. Yes, I can continue to use the paper but that’ll mean like 10-15 straws per restaurant visit vs one plastic. Does that make sense to you? 

And a colleague of mine saw this message posted on one of her friend’s Facebook page:

Of all of the things I considered having to battle in my life as a black, disabled female, STRAWS is certainly not one that ever crossed my mind.

Apologies to my disabled friends and allies that are over hearing about straws (myself included), but I must continually remind myself that I’m connected to so many different communities….so that at the risk of annoying some, I’m educating others. #sorrynotsorry

It isn’t just these ridiculous straw bans that are affecting the disabled. Disposable wipes are another convenience item used by these demographics that are being banned unnecessarily. The Guardian reported on that issue last year—specifically how the “eco friendly” versions are often too expensive to afford: 

As for disposable wipes, the issue here is mostly cost. Many biodegradable versions are available, but some of the best eco options can cost as much as £4.99, with an equivalent non-biodegradable set 79p. Hard-up parents, disabled people and those on benefits may be forced to choose the cheaper option. I know I certainly have done over the years. 

It’s great that Starbucks and other companies care about the oceans, but they should consider the consequences of these weak gestures and seek out better solutions to these major problems—solutions that do more than signal their own concern. 

IIndependent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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