Guelph Stopped Short of Banning Plastic Straws. Why One Woman Sees Them as a ‘Necessary Evil’

Paper, glass or metal straws can be a choking hazard, unsafe Carmen Groleau · CBC News
Posted: Apr 30, 2022

The chair of Guelph’s accessibility advisory committee wants people to be more aware that banning single-use plastic straws has real-life implications for people living with a disability.

The plastic straw is an accessibility device, said Lorelei Root, who uses a wheelchair. She says plastic straws are “a necessary evil” because it is the only way some people with disabilities can drink.

“People have difficulty holding a cup because of motor function disabilities, grip strength or have spasms,” she said.

“When it comes to plastic, unfortunately, it’s the only material currently available that serves the needs of the disabled community with out creating more barriers.”

Guelph City Council has decided to ban plastic shopping bags and polystyrene foam cups and takeout containers starting Jan. 1, 2023. An earlier draft of the bylaw also banned plastic straws except when requested or in certain settings, such as hospitals but staff were directed do more consultations after concerns were raised by the city’s accessibility advisory committee.

Heather Connell, manager of technical services with Guelph’s solid waste resources, told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo there are options readily available: paper cups and containers or restaurants can can up to reusable takeout container programs.

“We’re trying to encourage behaviour change and these are the first steps,” Connell said.

Alternative to plastic can create barriers

Paper, metal or glass straws are all common alternatives to plastic but they just aren’t the same for people living with a disability, said Root.

Paper straws disintegrate after soaking in liquids for a period of time, making them a choking hazard, said Root. Metal and glass straws don’t protect against heat and the metal can cause allergic reactions for people with chemical sensitivities.

A straw that bends is also important for people with limited neck mobility, said Root.

“If you have a straight straw you have to bend your neck over your drink to drink it,” she said. “Even the plastic straws that don’t have a bend in them can still physically bend and they can snap back to normal.”

Glass and metal straws can be a safety hazard for people with muscle spasms. Root said she gets spasms in her jaw and bitting down on a glass or metal straw can be dangerous. It can also be difficult for people to clean their straws at home if they have mobility issues.

Root said plastic straw bans also create social barriers. The added cost and labour to source, buy and carry specialty straws falls under what the disability community refers to as a “disability tax.”

It’s common for people with disabilities to live on a fixed income and that extra charge is discriminatory, Roots said.

And while her committee had recommended bio-degradable plastic straws as a compromise, Root said city staff advised those plastics don’t break down as well in city waste facilities.

‘We can have both’

Root and the members of the accessibility advisory committee say they support the City of Guelph’s decision to ban some single-use plastics next year. She also says she’s thankful council heard their concerns and hopes the broader community can do the same.

She said often times, it sees like environmental groups and the disability community are at odds over this issue, but it doesn’t have to be that way, she said.

“I’m very passionate about the environment and I’m very passionate about accessibility and I think there are ways that we can have both,” she said.

She also wants the community to know that if they see someone using a plastic straw, it may be because they have to.

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