Disabled people have reacted angrily to government plans to introduce a ban on the sale or distribution of plastic straws, which could come into effect as early as next year.
The ban, which would also outlaw drink stirrers and cotton buds, is being introduced to address the “devastation” caused to rivers and seas by single-use plastic items, and is due to come into force at some point between October 2019 and October 2020.
But most paper and plant-based alternatives to plastic straws are not flexible or suitable for hot drinks, and therefore increase the risk of choking when they become soggy or start to disintegrate.
And metal straws – another frequently-suggested alternative – can be dangerous for people with certain conditions, while reusable plastic straws cause hygiene problems.
The government’s plans are subject to a consultation, which was launched this week and ends on 3 December.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said it would consult on how to ensure that “those who need straws for medical and accessibility reasons can still use them” and are not “disadvantaged or stigmatised” by a ban.
It said that pharmacies would still be able to sell plastic straws, while restaurants, pubs and bars “will be able to stock some straws for use on request”.
But it appears to have failed to carry out an equality impact assessment of its plans, which would make it harder to prove that it has not breached its duties as a public sector body under the Equality Act.
Launching the consultation, environment secretary Michael Gove said: “I commend retailers, bars and restaurants that have already committed to removing plastic straws and stirrers. But we recognise we need to do more.”
There was widespread anger at his plans among disabled people, including those who rely on the use of plastic straws as an independent living aid.
Jamie Szymkowiak, founder of the Scottish-based, user-led campaign One in Five, said the government was “doomed to fail the needs of disabled people” unless it took a different approach.
He said: “Outright bans, of any product, often adversely affect marginalised groups and in the case of plastic straws it is the right for disabled people to live independently that is under threat.
“This debate too often puts disabled people against environmentalists without acknowledging the best solution.
“Instead of pursuing an outright ban, the government should work with disabled people’s organisations and environmentalists to push manufacturers to produce an environmentally-friendly straw that meets the needs of everyone.”
He encouraged disabled people to take part in the consultation, and added: “Disabled people shouldn’t have to ask or provide a medical certificate before accessing a straw and passing yet another cost on to disabled people is unacceptable if you believe that society bears a responsibility to make the world more accessible for everyone.
“Gove should listen to disabled people: push manufactures and suppliers to produce an environmentally-friendly straw instead of pushing us further into isolation.”
There was anger and frustration at the government’s plans on social media, with disabled TV presenter and producer, and YouTube star, Jessica Kellgren-Fozard, even live-tweeting her completion of the DEFRA consultation document.
Asked whether she agreed with the proposed October 2019 date for a ban, she wrote: “There should be no ban. Some disabled people will be forced to illegally import plastic straws just to keep drinking. Do you really want that????”
She also retweeted a video, first released in August, which explains exactly why disabled people need plastic straws (pictured).
In her video, she says she needs to drink up to 10 litres of liquids a day because of her health condition, all of it through straws, because her wrists are weak and her hands shake.
She says in the video: “We genuinely want to help the planet, but we can’t sacrifice ourselves in the process.
“The majority of us have taken up reusable straws and it is only in a pinch that we need the disposable ones… but it is a need.
“Yes, it would be better if someone invented something that functions as well as a bendable plastic straw and has little environmental impact, but until that happens we can’t just outright ban something people need.”
Another disabled campaigner, David Gillon, said on Twitter that the “totally predictable” results of the government’s proposals would be that restaurants and pubs would stop stocking all plastic straws, while disabled people would “face harassment for using them in public” and “have to pay through the nose for buying them in a pharmacy”.
He was also angry that the department’s impact assessment stated that disabled people “will not be affected by the ban”, even though its “risks” section warns that “inadequate provision of exemptions” would “impose welfare costs on those who rely on using plastic straws in their everyday lives”.
Research carried out for DEFRA by Resource Futures Ltd has warned that an outright ban could have “disutility impacts” for disabled people “because they would not be able to consume drinks outdoors without having to bring their own costlier (at point of purchase) reusable straws”.
It also warned of “media/legal” challenges if “certain enabling products” were not exempted from the ban.
A DEFRA spokeswoman had failed to confirm by noon today (Thursday) that the department had not carried out an equality impact assessment of its plans.
But she said in a statement: “We recognise there are instances where using plastic straws is necessary for medical reasons which is why our consultation seeks views on how to ensure those who need straws can still access them.
“For example, pharmacies will still be able to supply plastic straws and restaurants, pubs and bars will be able to stock some straws for use on request.
“The government will work closely with stakeholders to ensure these exemptions are crafted exactly right.”
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