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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

Plastic Bans: Pitting the Well-being of the Environment Against the Lives of People with Disabilities

By Gabe Mullen, NCIL Policy Intern

“People with disabilities versus the environment” are not words you probably thought you would ever hear together in a sentence. They’re certainly not words we should want to hear in a sentence. After all, the environment is in trouble, and we should want to save it. And for people with disabilities, the world is still largely inaccessible, threatening our freedom and our ability to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

What could possibly pit these two worthy causes against one another?

Across the country, cities and counties are banning plastic straws and bags, or instituting “bag taxes”, citing the fact that such items, which don’t decompose and are typically used only once, end up in our oceans where they threaten wildlife. Currently, there is a bill containing a plastic ban in Congress, sponsored by Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico and Congressman Alan Lowenthal of New York.

Plastic straws and bags are just a convenience, proponents argue. No one really needs them. At the end of the day, the only people that really stand to lose from such bans are the corporations that make the plastics, right?

Wrong. Let’s unpack what these bans mean, starting with straws.

For people with a wide range of disabilities, straws are essential to consume a beverage. Some people may be unable to pick up a cup to sip from it. Others could choke without the help of a straw. In the event of a ban, either of these scenarios would force people to depend on others to help them drink, or make it impossible to drink at all.

But what about alternatives to plastic?

In order to make a safe, convenient straw for a person with a disability, a number of factors must be considered, and only plastic checks off all the boxes.

For a straw to work, it must be truly flexible, a factor which is crucial for people with mobility issues. Hard materials such as glass and metal cannot be bent at all.

They must be sturdy, and must not fall apart or dissolve in the liquid before the drink is even finished. Silicone is not sturdy, making it easy to bend sideways if a person leans forward on it, as people with physical disabilities often find themselves doing. Materials such as paper easily dissolve, and could barely even pass for a straw for a non-disabled person. The one difference, of course, is that not everyone has the privilege of sipping from the drink afterwards.

Finally, they must not pose any type of injury risk, fatal or otherwise, such as burns, cutting the mouth or chipping teeth, or even impaling the user. Last year, a woman with a disability was impaled through the eye after falling on a metal straw. For people who have spasms, metal, glass, and other types of hard, breakable materials can cause injury with one wrong move. Meanwhile, materials such as metal and glass, which easily conduct heat in hot weather, also pose the risk of causing burns.

There simply are no other viable alternatives.

What about banning plastic bags?

Illnesses, whether foodborne or airborne, are a danger for everyone. However, for those who are immunocompromised, meaning they have a weaker immune system than the average person, the risk of catching either one of those types of illnesses is far greater. So too are the chances of an illness killing them. Plastic bags can be disposed of after one use to reduce that risk. But reusable bags, which cost at least a dollar to purchase, can’t just be thrown away for the average person trying to save money. After all, they were designed for just that purpose, to be reusable.

However, this means that to avoid disease, bags must be cleaned on a regular basis. While one might assume this would be easy for everyone, even being in the presence of an unclean bag could harm an immunocompromised individual. Plus, in a world dominated by reusable bags, how could we guarantee that everyone would wash them, when most individuals don’t even wash their hands correctly? If an immunocompromised individual went to eat a meal at a house where the bags used to carry the food were not washed, their own clean bags might still not be enough to protect them.

Why would we want to put people’s lives at risk, just to be more environmentally conscious?

And what about the plastic bag tax? Clearly, the tax is designed to incentivize people to use reusable bags. For those who clean their bags and who aren’t as fearful about disease or death, avoiding the tax is less risky. But for an immunocompromised individual whose use of these bags puts their life on the line, this tax literally increases their cost of living. And for all the stress this tax places on disabled people, it has failed to stop widespread plastic bag use in any of the places where it has gone into effect.

Why should people with disabilities be required to shoulder the burden of bringing our own straws and bags with us? Why should people be fearful of forgetting and not being able to buy groceries or consume a beverage for the day? Why should we be forced to clean those straws and bags when doing so may still not be enough?

We shouldn’t.  

Some policy proposals in the past have suggested creating a world in which only people with disabilities can have access to plastic products. What could possibly be wrong with that? Consider the consequences: individuals with disabilities would have to ask employees for straws or bags on the basis of their disability, forcing them to out themselves, or call attention to their disabilities, after which the employee they are asking can still deny them a bag or straw because they just aren’t convinced they need it. What will the person do then? Go through the financial stress and exhaustion of filing a lawsuit?

This is a simple issue of equity. People with disabilities need to have access to plastic straws and bags in order to be independent, and there is simply no way to restrict them for everyone else without hurting us.

So what should we do to save our environment and protect people with disabilities?

Governments, both at the federal and state level, should be funding research for safe, viable, biodegradable, single-use alternatives to conventional plastic. At Ohio State University, such research is already in progress, and if such an alternative is fully developed, the conundrums faced by both the disability community and our environment could be relegated to the dustbin of history.

But banning plastics until we have such an alternative (if it ever comes) is unsustainable for an equitable world. We cannot save the environment on the backs of people with disabilities.

As a community, we need to understand the power of our voice, but also the severity and imminence of this threat. Lawmakers are beginning to understand environmental issues, and that’s a good thing. But they are not understanding the impact that these bans are having on people with disabilities, and they are going into effect all across the country at an alarming rate. If we don’t speak up loudly and clearly now, lawmakers will continue to ignore us. And once these kinds of bans go into place, they will be much harder to reverse than to resist right now.

By instituting these plastic bans and taxes, governments are turning our plight into an “us versus them” conundrum, when all we wish to do is live our lives and be independent. People with disabilities want to survive, and environmentalists want to keep our planet clean and wildlife safe. It’s time for lawmakers to respond to these issues with investment in new research and technology, not divisive and harmful bans.


  1. Marlene pohl says

    Well said, and sadly not getting the attention it needs. Only amendment I’d make is second to last sentence “,and environmentalists” I would change to “and environmentalists ( some whom are people with disabilities”) so as not to sound two separate groups, when in many cases people are both.