Why People With Disabilities Want Starbucks to Keep Offering Plastic Straws

By 2020, Starbucks will no longer hand out plastic straws to its thirsty customers.

This is a global effort to eliminate the distribution of approximately a billion plastic straws across all of its 28,000 locations annually.

Next year, some locations will start testing new strawless lids for cold beverages that would normally come with a plastic or “single-use” straw. The straws they keep on-hand will be made with materials such as paper or recycled plastic.

This decision aligns with the company’s efforts to “achieve our global aspiration of sustainable coffee, served to our customers in more sustainable ways,” according to Starbucks president and chief executive officer Kevin Johnson.

Despite the positive environmental implications, though, some individuals and groups are fighting back, upset that “eliminating” plastic straws puts certain people with disabilities at a major disadvantage.

Starbucks coffee

Starbucks coffee | Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

One article in The Guardian featured the distressed thoughts of a woman who has been disabled since she was 14. She’s aware of the environmental dangers of the plastic straw, but has no other option.

She wrote: “I need straws that bend, ones that can handle all drinks, including medication, and all temperatures. I need straws that aren’t too fat, that won’t cause me to choke or be difficult for me to keep in my mouth.”

Many biodegradable straw options don’t work when used with drinks at high temperatures. Some argue that new Starbucks straws are meant to replace the ones used in cold drinks. But some conditions such as cerebral palsy make drinking without a straw and lid — regardless of temperature — impossible.

So why not use paper straws? Some individuals with learning or developmental disabilities take longer to finish their drinks. Paper straws go soggy when they’re left in liquid for too long.

Straws made with metal or bamboo are often dangerous for people with Parkinson’s: They’re too strong. Stainless-steel straws conduct heat (and cold). And you don’t want someone who might chew on their straw to do so when it’s made of glass.

Starbucks drinks

Starbucks drinks | STR/AFP/Getty Images

Some also argue that reusable straws are either too expensive or need washing. This makes them a luxury item many with disabilities can’t afford.

Much of the online backlash from those who live with disabilities or know someone with a disability comes from a misunderstanding. Stores won’t offer straws automatically, but they aren’t getting rid of them altogether.

Starbucks clarified that anyone who wants or needs a straw with their drink can have as many as they want, but only when they request it. If paper straws aren’t an option for some people, it’s very likely single-use straws will still be. But they’ll be made from alternative materials, not traditional plastic. Still eco-friendly, but hopefully more accommodating.

It isn’t that disability rights advocates and those living with disabilities themselves don’t support the idea of eco-friendly straws. They’re simply frustrated by the lack of sustainable options that are both safe and suitable on an individual basis.

There’s only so much Starbucks can do to provide a large number of mass-produced straws that work for everyone. For now, it’s up to each individual to seek out straw options that work best for them.

Everyone can still indulge in their Starbucks guilty pleasures. Some just might have to take an extra step in order to do so.

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