Knee-jerk responses to plastic straw campaigns ‘risk isolating disabled customers’


Businesses are responding to high-profile environmental campaigns to stop using plastic straws without considering the needs of disabled people, disability rights activists have warned.

The Scottish user-led political campaign group One in Five fears that “knee-jerk” promises to ditch single-use plastic before sourcing accessible alternatives risk isolating disabled customers and damaging their ability to live independently.

One in Five’s Pam Duncan-Glancy and Jamie Szymkowiak have written to the SNP MSP Kate Forbes, asking her to pause her Final Straw campaign – which calls for a crackdown on single-use plastic straws – until it can provide suitable advice to the organisations it is targeting.

One in Five has pointed out that most paper and plant-based straws are not flexible or suitable for hot drinks, and therefore increase the risk of choking when the straw becomes soggy or starts to disintegrate.

And they say that metal straws can be dangerous for people with neurological conditions, while reusable plastic straws cause hygiene concerns for people with certain health conditions.

One in Five has contacted 10 organisations known to have committed to phasing out the use of plastic straws – including sports venues, cinema and restaurant chains and transport providers – and none of them were able to say whether their alternative straw would be suitable for disabled customers.

Four of those organisations have since committed to keeping some plastic straws available until they can source a suitable, accessible alternative.

Szymkowiak (pictured, front left) told DNS: “Businesses are understandably reacting to the environmental concerns around single-use plastics – and we share those concerns.

“Nonetheless, knee-jerk reactions risk isolating disabled customers as our needs become an afterthought as is shown by the number of companies we’ve contacted who said they didn’t initially think about the repercussions.

“It is services disabled people use every day: trains, ferries, cafes, cinemas, sporting venues – all removing straws without thinking about the needs of disabled people.

“If you support the social model of disability, why should the cost and responsibility be passed on to disabled people?

“Instead, we should all be pushing manufacturers to produce a biodegradable flexible straw that is suitable for hot and cold drinks – that everyone can use.”

In her reply to the One in Five letter, Forbes says she had “always made clear that alternatives must be readily and easily available” and that “no change should put greater burdens on people with disabilities or those who need to use straws”.

Although One in Five welcomed her quick response to its concerns, it still wants her to pause the campaign, because it believes organisations are not hearing her plea on alternatives for disabled people.

It wants other similar campaigns to take the same action.

Forbes has so far declined to call for a pause in her campaign.

One in Five has welcomed the decision of Roseanna Cunningham, the Scottish government’s cabinet secretary for the environment, to appoint a disability adviser to the expert panel she is setting up that will advise on reducing single-use plastic items.

It hopes that this panel will be able to provide the advice and support that businesses need on sourcing alternatives that are suitable for disabled customers.

But Szymkowiak also points out that the decision to appoint a disability adviser to the panel was only made after a series of tweets by disabled activist Fiona Robertson.

He said this highlights the need for more disabled people to be involved in politics so they can influence the development of government policies.

Cunningham told MSPs earlier this month that there were “legitimate concerns from disabled people which we must all hear and pay heed to” when acting to address concerns over the use and waste of plastic.

Forbes told DNS yesterday (Wednesday) that she would write to Cunningham to ask that her disability advisor looks at alternatives to plastic straws before any ban is implemented, but she has suggested that she is unable to call a halt to her campaign.

Forbes said that such a pause was “not within my gift because this campaign is much bigger than me”.

She added: “I have offered to meet with any disability groups, such as One in Five, to discuss this further because the issues are very important.

“The campaign to ditch plastic straws is much, much bigger than me or the Final Straw campaign.

“It is being driven by primary school children, newspapers and businesses’ initiatives.

“I cannot dictate what does or does not happen, but I do want to make sure that people who need plastic straws shape government legislation and business plans.”

One in Five is now planning a series of blogs to raise the profile of the issue, alongside a social media campaign to encourage manufacturers to produce an environmentally-friendly straw that is “suitable for everyone”.

It has already received support from disabled people across the UK, and as far afield as California.

Duncan-Glancy said: “Protecting the environment is essential if we are to create the world we want for future generations.

“Action to do this is necessary. However, as with all policy decisions, we must consider the impact of them on different groups, including disabled people.”

Szymkowiak added: “To those campaigning to ditch plastic straws, all we ask is that you think of the needs of disabled people and work with us to push manufacturers to produce an environmentally-friendly straw that is suitable for everyone.”