Two years ago, I was chewing a tortilla chip when I heard a loud crackle of bone and a distinct pop, followed by a shrill ringing in my ear. By the time I pushed my jaw back into position, the swelling had already started.
I had seriously sprained my jaw, a problem that my doctor attributed to Ehler-Danlos syndrome, a connective tissue disease that means I am deficient in collagen, which keeps our bones and joints in place. For the next few days, I could barely open my mouth, eating only soft foods like mashed potatoes and porridge. I had to sip smoothies and other beverages through a straw.
This new dependency on straws created another challenge for me. As a committed environmentalist for most of my adult life, I had been blogging about the evils of single-use straws for years. I habitually rejected them at restaurants, long before it became the trendy thing to do.
So I tried my reusable straws, which are made of hard plastic or stainless steel. While they worked well enough, the sharp edges nicked my lips and clinked painfully against my gritted teeth. I’ve sprained my jaw only once more since then, and both times, the straws only added to my pain.
The experience pit my views as an environmentalist against the needs of my disability. I was at the center of a debate that has spurred several cities and companies to institute plastic straw bans this year, including Starbucks and Delta. Those bans have often come up against vocal objections from people with physical disabilities who are dependent on straws to feed and hydrate themselves.
But as my illness has progressed, I’ve come to more fully understand how straws can be crucial for many people. Yet I still believe there is some room for compromise on the straw issue that can address environmental concerns while also taking into consideration the needs of the disabled.
My commitment to environmentalism stems from my childhood, growing up in an impoverished community of color in New York City. My neighborhood, Sunset Park, was notorious for environmental pollution, especially from plastic. In fact, a 2016 op-ed penned by the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance supported a nickel fee on plastic bags to reduce the waste processed at transfer facilities in several low-income neighborhoods, including mine. Families residing in these neighborhoods suffered from high rates of asthma and other diseases as a result.
As a child in Sunset Park, I often had to stand by helplessly while I witnessed cousins, and later my brother and mother, gasping for air with bulging eyes while grasping desperately for their inhalers. Some of my relatives and neighbors became afflicted with rare and aggressive cancers or other progressive diseases, some of which claimed them way too young. I developed a severe form of endometriosis, a disease that is reportedly impacted — and some suspect caused — by an overexposure to environmental toxins, including those found in plastic.
The irony shouldn’t be lost that, while many disabled people need certain plastic products like straws to meet their basic health needs, plastic pollution might play a contributing role in the development of certain disabling medical conditions. For me, using plastic generally is not in the best interest of my fragile health because it potentially introduces more endocrine-disrupting chemicals into my body, which can exacerbate endometriosis. I already can’t have biological children and live in severe daily pain because of both this disease and Ehler-Danlos syndrome. And I hate the idea that more people will suffer like this without an immediate environmental intervention.
The problem could become more critical now that China is no longer accepting our plastic trash. If we don’t significantly scale back production and use of single-use plastics, we will simply be shifting the negative health impacts of disposing of and processing that plastic from poor people overseas onto poor people in our own country.
Yet, in the rush to make a symbolic gesture to tackle plastic waste, some companies like Starbucks and municipalities like Seattle initially overlooked the needs of people in the disability community when they instituted their straw bans, failing to provide adequate alternatives for those who need them. That not only risks backlash against such environmental efforts, but harms vulnerable people who need straws to survive.
There is a better way to address this problem. Instead of outright or full-scale bans, we can crack down on recreational uses of straws by mandating “ask first” policies at restaurants and eateries. This could substantially reduce our collective consumption of straws — by as much as 50 percent to 90 percent, according to some estimates — while ensuring access for those who need them for medical purposes.
We can also develop better reusable straw options made of more sustainable and flexible materials, like silicone, that would better meet the needs of some disabled folks than most current alternatives.
And it’s important to remember that, while straws are a part of the plastic problem, they are a relatively small part-- especially compared to products like plastic packaging, fishing gear and single use bags. As such, banning campaigns might be more effectively concentrated in those areas.
I am fortunate that the times I have needed straws for medical reasons have been minimal, though that may change in the future. In the meantime, I believe we have the capacity to come up with innovative solutions that can both accommodate the health needs of the disabled while also protecting poor communities from the environmental fallout of plastic waste.
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