Living with Sunshine and Shadows
Icons in the Public Square

The Last Straw for Starbucks, but Not for the Environment or the Disability Community

Starbucks plastic cups
Photo credit: Alvin Trusty

In a world polluted by plastics that humankind just won’t quit, Starbucks plans on phasing out plastic straws in its 28,000 stores by 2020. Many applaud the company’s decision to do its part in reducing marine plastic pollution, even though the caffeine watering hole will be replacing the straws with sippy cup-like lids made from—you guessed it!—plastic. So how much of a dent will this make in the grand scheme of protecting our environment? We have less than two years to see the results. And what about those of the disability community who depend on straws? Did Starbucks think their decision through? We reached out to some of our authors to get a broader sense of the impact this will have on several fronts: environmental activism, consumer activism, and disability rights.


Lennard Davis“The problem is that these decisions are made without the input of people with disabilities. When the discussion about the ecological problems of plastic straws comes up, this seems like an issue that all progressives would agree upon. But when you consider a straw a form of access or accommodation, then the problem changes. As long as we think in dubious terms of a template-like interchangeable human being who has a standardized body as the subject of laws or regulations, we will continue to have this problem. The Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t postulate a single solution to all accommodations. It posits solutions to a variety of bodily and mental differences. If Starbucks had disability rights consultants, they would have gotten this right the first time around.”
—Lennard Davis, Enabling Acts: The Hidden Story of How the Americans with Disabilities Act Gave the Largest US Minority Its Rights


Marcus Eriksen“Starbucks kicking the straw habit, while only a drop in the plastic bucket, is an opportunity for engagement in the wider issue of plastic pollution impacts. Straws are one of the many ‘single-use throwaways,’ like plastic bags, Styrofoam, and microbeads, that top the list of harmful plastics. They are harmful because of their ubiquity as environmental waste and contributor to microplastic impacts, but of equal importance is the signal straws give to society that plastic used as a throwaway material is acceptable—but not anymore. While single-use throwaway plastics make up less than five percent of the world’s plastic consumption, they are the frontrunners in terms of products that pollute the environment and trash communities. To that end, Starbucks’ contribution is the tip of the iceberg.”
—Marcus Eriksen, Junk Raft: An Ocean Voyage and a Rising Tide of Activism to Fight Plastic Pollution


Fran Hawthorne“Sure, any effort to reduce the amount of plastic we use is helpful, overdue, and insufficient, so I’m happy to welcome Starbucks to this too-small club. Now here are some more, easy steps that Starbucks could take: Lobby every city in which it has outlets (that’s actually less than half the Earth) to ban these straws, as its hometown of Seattle has already done. Train its baristas to ask customers if they’ve brought their own thermos, or if they’re dining in and might prefer a porcelain mug, rather than assuming that all coffee-drinkers need a throwaway paper cup. And by the way, readers, this advice applies to us, too. At any restaurant we go to, our first words to our server—after ‘Hello’—could be something like: ‘No, thanks, I don’t need a straw’ or ‘Please give me a reusable mug.’”
—Fran Hawthorne, Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love


Ben Mattlin“When I first heard about the straw ban, I thought, ‘No big deal. I always carry my own bendy straws anyway.’ But then I heard a Seattle activist on the radio sarcastically say, It IS possible to drink without a straw—and I felt offended. It’s not possible for ME! Check your privilege! And I realized that these well-meaning environmentalists had completely left out the disability perspective. I’m sure no one would object to exceptions being made for those of us who ask for or need a plastic straw, but I don’t want it to become special treatment. That’s not equality. I don’t want my using a straw to become a big deal, something people gape at or ask about or frown upon. To me, if you want to ban a disposable plastic item that’s bad for sea life, why not outlaw six-pack holders?
—Ben Mattlin, In Sickness and In Health: Love, Disability, and a Quest to Understand the Perils and Pleasures of Interabled Romance