Disability coalition criticises Starbucks' plastic straw ban

Disability coalition criticises Starbucks plastic straw ban

The news that Starbucks – among a huge number of other retailers – will be phasing out plastic drinking straws from its stores has caused ‘considerable anxiety’ for disabled people around the world, according to an open letter to the company from a coalition of disability advocacy organisations.

The fight against single-use plastic straws has gained significant momentum over the past year, with environmental campaigners highlighting the huge amount of waste caused by the proliferation of these small disposable items. The World Wildlife Fund estimated that 42 billion straws will be used in the UK alone this year, and they are repeatedly among the top ten most collected items in beach cleanup operations: volunteers with charity Ocean Conservancy collected more than 600,000 individual straws in 2017.

Statistics like this, supported by high-profile campaigns, have led many food and drink retailers to pledge to eliminate plastic straws – including Starbucks, which joined the ranks of companies banning the item in July, announcing that it would be replacing plastic straws with new specially-designed lids and straws made of an alternative material. Similar action has been proposed at government level in England, Scotland and Europe.

However, while plastic straws are now most often presented as an unnecessary addition to a beverage, the items are vital to many disabled people who cannot easily drink without them. Raising awareness of this fact today (23 August) is a coalition of disability advocacy organisations, together representing more than 500,000 people in Europe and North America.

An open letter to Starbucks

The coalition has given its support to an open letter, addressed to Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, which asks that the company invest in developing an alternative to plastic straws which would maintain the convenience and ease of use of straws for disabled people, while satisfying environmentalists at the same time.

The letter, written by Scottish disability rights organisation One in Five, states: ‘One in Five have been working since the start of this year to bring the needs of disabled people to the public’s attention in the plastic straw debate. The average plastic straw is cheap, flexible, can be used for drinking cold and hot beverages, and is readily available. For some disabled people these attributes are vital for independent living.’

Disability coalition criticises Starbucks plastic straw ban
Starbucks' newly designed 'strawless lids' are supposed to remove the need for straws, but critics say they exclude disabled people
While Starbucks has stated that plastic straws would continue to be available on request to those who need them, the group describes this as ‘unnecessary gatekeeping that contributes to feelings of guilt for wanting to enjoy – or needing – a drink.’

‘Nor is it acceptable for non-disabled people to expect disabled people to carry a straw everywhere we go just in case we get thirsty’, the letter continues. ‘Passing yet another cost onto disabled people isn’t suitable if you accept that society bears a responsibility to make the world more accessible for everyone.’

The letter goes on to say that most paper or plant-based alternatives to plastic straws are not suitable for drinks over 40 degrees Celsius, while metal straws conduct heat and present other dangers. Therefore, the coalition is calling on Starbucks to lead on the research and development of a new type of straw, which would be both environmentally friendly and accessible for everyone.

Notable signatories of the letter include representatives from UK and European political parties, trade unions and disability rights groups and activists, including Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson.

Commenting on the launch, One in Five Co-founder Jamie Szymkowiak said: “Our letter shows the strength of feeling from disabled people around the world. Starbucks must listen to their customers, including disabled people and environmentalists, and commit to investing in the research and development of a straw that doesn't harm the environment for future generations and ensures the needs of disabled people are met.”

Louise Edge, Senior Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace, added: “The companies responsible for distributing masses of single-use plastic items have the resources to innovate products which are truly sustainable and fully fit for purpose – suitable for everyone including the disabled community.

“Straws and other throwaway plastic items, that can't be easily recycled, must be phased out and replaced with alternatives that don't harm pollute our oceans and are suitable for everyone. In the meantime, plastic straws should be easily available for those who need them.”

The open letter to  Kevin Johnson can be read in full on the One in Five website.

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