Friday 5 July 2019

On plastic straws and lollipop sticks

I'm going for a walk twice a week at the moment, mostly around Oakley Creek and the neighbouring streets and shared path.  As I walk, I pick up rubbish: I ignore things that will biodegrade reasonably quickly, but gather most of the plastic, metal and glass that I see.

I have noticed that I seem to pick up similar numbers of plastic straws and plastic lollipop sticks.  These seem similar to me in terms of environmental harm: if a straw can get stuck in a turtle's nostril, surely so can a lollipop stick?  So why do I see frequent calls for a straw ban (and bans already enacted in many places overseas), yet never a call for a plastic lollipop stick ban?

And this is not merely a curiosity.  So far as I know, no one needs plastic lollipop sticks.  You could make lollipops with paper sticks if you wanted to have lollipops - and people who are allergic to the glues in those* could just eat regular boiled lollies if they wanted something sweet.

*apparently the glues used to hold paper straws together are often wheat based, and people with severe wheat allergies can react to them.  I presume similar glues are used for paper lollipop sticks.

Straws, on the other hand, save lives.

When I was first ill with CFS, I landed in hospital with severe dehydration.  At that time Martin told me that, whenever he was sick as a kid, he was given his drinks with a straw.  That way you can drink lying down.  So I moved to drinking with straws.  I found that meant that, not only could I drink lying down (something I still use straws for), I also didn't have to lift the glass as much - which was great with my very limited energy.  It made a world of difference and I never needed to be put on a rehydration drip again.

It's not just people with energy issues that straws help, either.  There was a guy in my youth group when I was a teenager who had quite severe cerebral palsy.  He couldn't hold a cup and he didn't have the co-ordination required to drink from an open cup - but he was fine if someone held a cup to his mouth with a straw in it.  Without straws, he literally couldn't have drunk anything.

And plastic straws are wildly superior to any alternative, from the point of view of most disabled people.

I tried some of the alternatives, but plastic straws were the only thing that worked for me.  I needed something that could be bent to just the right angle (which rules out all the fully rigid options, like glass and metal), that wasn't too heavy or rigid (otherwise it crashed into my teeth in a scary fashion - I didn't have the control to prevent that), that didn't dissolve in hot drinks (so no paper) and was rigid enough to stay where I needed it to be (so no silicone).

It turns out I am not alone:

Source: Sarah Breanne P

It's hardly surprising that bendy plastic straws are useful for disabled people: bendy plastic straws were literally invented as a piece of hospital equipment.  These days they are mostly used by able-bodied people 'just for fun', but that original need is still there.

And yet, disabled people I read on Twitter are constantly reporting being denied straws by cafes on environmental grounds*, being publicly shamed for trashing the environment etc., whilst all kinds of non-essential single-use plastic is given a free pass.  It's not right.

*I wanted to share a particularly egregious story here, but I can't.  The woman who told it has now set her Twitter account to private due to the number of actual threats she received (presumably from eco-warriors) for sharing her story of being prevented from drinking anything in a local cafe.  But if you do want to read more real-life stories, check out #SuckItAbleism and #StrawBan.

I don't know if lollipops really do do as much environmental damage as straws.  There's a chance that fewer of them end up in the sea, as they are considerably heavier.  But my general point remains.  The vast majority of the plastic I pick up on my walks is either itself unnecessary or comes from 'treat' products - like wrappers from chocolate bars and lollies.  So sure, it's important to care about the environment, and plastic in the ocean does seem to be a real problem.  But why not pick on elements of plastic waste that no one needs, rather than banning stuff that saves people's lives?  And, whilst we're at it, why not guide our policy by dealing with the major sources of plastic in the ocean, rather than sticking with things that seem 'easy' but also won't help very much?

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