How banning plastic straws could impact the disabled

Sea turtle Credit Ian Kennedy via Flickr CC BY SA 20 CNA Sea turtle. | Ian Kennedy via Flickr (cc by sa 2.0)

Sea turtles often sleep wedged beneath boulders on the ocean floor, or tucked below protruding ridges in coral reefs. They live, quite literally, under rocks. This means that sea turtles likely haven't heard that plastic drinking straws can kill them, and the straws are being banned in cities across the country.

Unlike sea turtles, most people don't live under rocks. Which means that most people, or at least most Americans, have heard in recent weeks of the mortal danger that disposable straws might cause for sea turtles, and of recent efforts to forbid those straws.

A recent focus on the danger posed by discarded drinking straws for turtles and other aquatic life is widely credited to an online video that went viral this summer, showing a sea turtle struggling with a straw stuck up its nostril.

The video has attracted fervent public enthusiasm to curb the use of drinking straws. In recent weeks, many companies and cities have taken the step to ban single-use plastic straws, citing environmental concerns.

Starbucks announced that it would eliminate them from its stores by 2020, and the Walt Disney Co. followed suit shortly afterwards, saying it would cease using plastic straws and stirrers at its theme parks by 2019.

The city of Santa Barbara, California, took the unusual step of threatening jail time for those who distribute straws, while San Francisco's city-wide ban is so expansive it actually prohibits one of the biodegradable alternatives that is encouraged by other other cities considering bans, including New York and Seattle.

But questions have arisen about just how actually effective these laws and policies will be for the environment, and some groups say that their lives will be made harder when straws are not available. And one Catholic theologian has told CNA that policymakers looking for ways to protect the environment should always consider the broader context of their work, and beware of unintended consequences.

Speaking about the recent focus on single use plastics, particularly drinking straws, by many companies and cities, Dr. Joe Capizzi, a moral theologian at the Catholic University of America and executive director of the school's Institute for Human Ecology explained that "any environmental activity is going to affect different populations differently."

Capizzi told CNA that well-motivated policy changes, like those banning plastic straws, can have unintended consequences, and policymakers should consider those who could be unexpectedly affected.

Responsible stewardship of the planet has been a point of emphasis for Pope Francis, most notably in his 2015 encyclical letter Laudato si, on the care of our common home.

In a message marking the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation in 2016, the pope called efforts to protect the natural environment a service to both the planet and to humanity, calling it a "work of mercy."

Francis has emphasized especially a "human ecology" that recognizes the dignity of the human person, and man's relationship to the environment.

The move to ban drinking straws has raised questions about how environmental policies can impact human dignity.

Disability-rights advocates point out that some people with physical or neurological disorders rely on plastic straws as tool of daily life. They say that drinking straw bans can cause real hardship for people with conditions like cerebral palsy, pointing out that for some people, a straw can be the difference between independence and needing help to drink.

"It's no surprise, then, the bans on straws will impact different segments of society differently. Straws help provide a measure of independence to some people with disabilities," Capizzi said.

More eco-friendly alternatives, such as straws made from metal, bamboo, and paper, are not as always as suitable as single-use plastic straws. Metal straws can get too hot, are not positionable, and can possibly break teeth, especially among people with certain disabilities. Paper straws can't be used in hot liquids, and they dissolve, creating a choking hazard, advocates say.

At the same time, some argue that straw bans may actually do little to protect the environment. Popular support for bans on single use plastics tends to focus on oceanic pollution, as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is now calculated to be more than 600,000 square miles. Yet straws compose only 0.02 percent of waste found in the ocean. Fishing gear--which the World Wildlife Fund identifies as the biggest threat to sea turtles--is the largest source of plastic waste.

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Capizzi urged that while Catholics work to protect the planet as a common home for all humanity, they give attention to the personal concerns of those who might be left behind by advertising campaigns and popular videos.

"You may recall years ago, the Montreal Protocol was passed and implemented to address chlorofluorocarbons and their adverse effects on the ozone layer. Because some medicines were delivered by CFCs, special carve-out provisions were provided so those people could continue to receive their medicine cheaply and effectively," he said.

"The move to look at the impact of plastics on the environments is well-intentioned: reliable evidence points out damaging effects of plastics on our environment. But before proceeding, care should be taken to weigh the impact this limited ban will have on populations for whom plastic straws are no mere convenience."

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