In January 2019, the “Skip the Straw” campaign was launched by the University of Arizona Cooper Center for Environmental Learning’s Outreach Team, a student-led group supported by the UA Green Fund.
The campaign partnered with Arizona Student Unions in hopes of cutting the amount of plastic straws used by the university in half by the end of the academic year. Graphics made for the movement stated that 532,000 straws were used on campus in 2018, which decreased to 480,000 in 2019.
Deanna Kulbeth, leader and project manager for the Cooper Center Campus Outreach Team, spoke to UA@Work.
“We are encouraging people to change their behavior and consumption by looking at their choices through the lens of environmental responsibility, and straws are one of the easiest things for people to let go of, we think,” Kulbeth said.
However, many people with disabilities rely on these sterile, positionable and allergy-free plastic straws to safely drink enough water or take their medicine with, according to Sav Schlauderaff, graduate assistant for the Disability Cultural Center.
A year after the “Skip the Straw” ban, the Disability Cultural Center is encouraging conversations between individuals about the necessity of plastic straws in the lives of some people.
The DCC hosted a “DisabiliTEA” chat on Thursday, Jan. 23, from 3:30-4:30 p.m. in Highland Commons and opened a safe space for students and members of the center to gather and discuss their frustrations of the villainization of plastic straw users on such an environmentally conscious campus.
According to the DCC, the Arizona Student Unions have banned plastic straws and opted for paper straws, which may be difficult for some people with disabilities to use because they bend and dissolve over time.
Schlauderaff knows firsthand the importance of being able to drink enough water for their health.
“Plastic straws, or having a straw that each individual disabled person can use, is a medical necessity,” Schlauderaff said.
Not everyone can use a reusable metal straw because of their lack of bendable function for people who are bedridden or have unstable motor skills, and they’re difficult to properly be sanitized.
“It’s like performative environmentalism,” Schlauderaff said. “It’s people posing with their reusable straw on Instagram to get likes for being so environmentally conscious when you know they’re probably doing a million other things that are not environmentally conscious in their day-to-day life with other single-use plastics.”
Z Wagenberg, an attendee of the DCC’s discussion, understands the plea by some people to cut down on single-use plastic for the sake of the environment but encourages others to take into consideration those who rely on them every day.
“I think it’s great to be aware of minimizing plastic waste, but that’s not the be-all end-all of environmentalism — to stop using plastic straws,” Wagenberg said. “It’s not going to solve all our problems and it’s actually hurting people who need it, so it’s just really frustrating.”
Wagenberg said some people with disabilities feel a stigma toward them using plastic straws from others, but it’s important to consider both sides of the issue and individual needs.
“It’s become kind of a moral thing to consider,” Schlauderaff said.
As reported by National Geographic, plastic straws account for 0.025% of the 8 million tons of plastic waste that flows into the ocean every year.
Schlauderaff discussed the online community filled with passionate voices from those advocating for the fair treatment of sea turtles and the oceans they live in, but individuals with disabilities would also appreciate greater visibility in their reasonings for being able to access straws for their medical needs.
“It should be a choice,” Wagenberg said. “Both [plastic and paper straws] should be available readily out in the open so you don’t have to ask for it and make a spectacle of yourself.”
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