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Disability, environment groups seek win-win solutions following straw ban

Disposable plastic straws are an essential resource for many people with disabilities. Starbucks announced a commitment to phase out plastic straws by 2020. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As Starbucks prepares to rid more than 24,000 stores of plastic straws, some environmentalists are trying to ban them across Chicago — and disability advocacy groups are urging them to tread carefully.

Though environmental groups have lauded Starbucks commitment to cut more than 1 billion plastic straws annually by 2020, others are pushing back against the coffee chain for overlooking needs of people with disabilities.

Adam Ballard, a Chicago resident whose disability limits the strength and range of motion in his arms, supports waste reduction but said the anti-straw movement has been “frustrating.”

“If it’s an especially hot day and I need a drink just to hydrate, it really frustrates me to think that there could potentially come a day where I don’t have anywhere to go,” Ballard said.

Environmental groups have long pushed for grassroots change, such as the Shedd Aquarium’s “Shedd the Straw” campaign. And more than 125 restaurants in Chicago have signed on, pledging to no longer hand out plastic straws with drinks.

Ballard, a Chicago resident, said he has been provided paper straws on occasion. Though for him it is a matter of inconvenience — paper straws dissolve easily and can change a drink’s flavor — he said the stakes are much higher for people whose disabilities reduce mouth control, or cause biting.

But with Starbucks’ announcement, the anti-straw conversation is shifting away from individual choice toward corporate responsibility. On Tuesday, American Airlines jumped on board, announcing it was phasing out plastic straws and stir sticks.

The Illinois Environmental Council is working to create legislation for Chicago to ban plastic straws entirely.

“I worry about how we’re placing the responsibility of reducing plastic on consumers when it really is big corporations that are making the choices,” said Jennifer Walling, the council’s executive director. “It’s great that (individuals) are changing their behavior, but if we really want change it needs to be done with corporate and government policy.”

Walling said people with disabilities have raised “legitimate concerns,” and the council plans to meet with groups such as Access Living, where Ballard is a staff member. Both hope legislation will preserve access to plastic straws for those who really need them, such as by requiring restaurants to have plastic straws available upon request.

Amber Smock, director of advocacy at Access Living, said in an email to the Sun-Times she is “glad people are willing to figure out solutions.”

“Disability rights extend to the right to drink in places of public business where a drink is part of the service,” Smock said. “Simply announcing a ban without any loophole for disability accommodations can appear to be a move towards creating segregation for people with disabilities.”

Ballard added that restaurants shouldn’t ask why someone requests a plastic straw, and always should have enough on hand. He said that “speaks to the basic human dignity question” of people with disabilities being able to gather in large groups.

In 2014, Illinois became the first state to ban plastic microbeads in personal care products. The movement led to nationwide legislation this year, recognized in January in a joint resolution by the Shedd Aquarium, the Illinois Environmental Council and the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Jennifer Caddick, vice president of communications and engagement at the Alliance, said she sees parallels between straws and microbeads. Environmental groups had to move away from a total ban on microbeads and consider where they might be necessary, such as in medical products, she said — which made the legislation stronger.

“There’s an opportunity for the same kind of conversation around straws … to really think about how they’re used and how we can make sure that people who need a straw can have one,” she said. “I don’t think it’s an either-or. I think it’s an and.”