Reducing waste – without reducing accessibility

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Waste – and how to reduce it – seems to be the topic on everybody’s lips at the moment.

Major supermarkets have mostly banned single use plastic bags, attempting to encourage people to bring their own reusable bags when doing the groceries.

ABC’s War on Waste documentary is in its second season, having explored household and food waste, textile waste, electronic waste, furniture waste and plastic waste such as packaging and straws.

Textile waste is a big issue in Australia. As shown on series one of War on Waste, Australians dispose of six tonnes of fashion and textile waste every 10 minutes, and this waste can be attributed to the growing popularity of cheap, fast fashion.

Samaritans runs four shops in Newcastle and Lake Macquarie that sell used clothing, shoes and other household items. Shops like these have an important role in reducing the amount of clothing that ends up in landfill.

In the recent debate about waste, it’s plastic straws that have become contentious and there is an important angle that we need to consider.

Here is the background on the movement against plastic straws: Hundreds of millions of plastic straws are used around the world every day. A few years ago a video went viral of a straw being pulled from the nose of a turtle and since then, momentum has built to a point where there are worldwide discussions, petitions and campaigns to ban plastic straws. Bans aren’t just being adopted by big companies such as McDonald’s and Starbucks – entire cities are trying to ban straws, such as the City of Sydney’s campaign to ban plastic straws in venues, called ‘Sydney doesn’t suck’.

While there has been very vocal public support for a straw ban, what is getting less attention is the impact a plastic straw ban has on people with a disability.

Some people with a disability need to use plastic straws to eat and drink. While there are numerous alternatives to a plastic straw, such as straws made from paper, metal, bamboo or glass, all of these pose different risks that a plastic straw does not. This table shows how current alternatives to plastic can be harmful by posing choking or injury risks, or how they’re unsafe for high temperatures.

ABC printed this opinion piece earlier this year on how a ban on plastic straws has unintended consequences for people with disabilities. The Establishment published an article last month titled “Strawgate: the ableism behind exclusionary activism” and this article from New Mobility talks about how the campaigns against straws could potentially lead to accessibility awareness.

Disabled TV presenter and YouTuber Jessica Kellgren-Fozard is one of many who have taken to social media to explain the need for plastic straws to be easily accessible.

Jessica’s video is very insightful. As she points out, the first targeted sales of bendable straws was to hospitals in the 1940s, given their versatile nature of being sterile, bendable, suitable for hot liquids and they don’t disintegrate.

There are countless other plastic items that could be the focus of community waste reduction campaigns, such as unnecessary plastic packaging and even birthday balloons, rather than campaigning against a crucial accessibility tool such as a straw.

Jessica’s video sums it up: banning straws is not substantive, it’s performative. Despite the best intentions from the environmentally conscious, these campaigns are compromising accessibility for people with disabilities.

Let us all do what is within our means and ability to reduce our impact on the planet, without reducing accessibility and passing judgement on those around us.