The Final Straw?

Wow, the power of social media! For those of you who don’t know (although, I’ve been shared around the world several times over now, so you probably will know) I have gone viral this week. Last week, it was announced that plastic stirrers, plastic straws & cotton buds are set to be banned in the UK. My pattern/type of Cerebral Palsy means that I am unable to drink anything at all without a straw, so as soon as I saw the news, my immediate question was “but what about if you absolutely rely on a plastic straw to drink?”

(Horrific photo, but topical!)

I’m not one for speaking out, in fact I’d much rather ‘just get on with it’ than make even a small murmur. But, in this case, it’s impossible ‘just to get on with it’; I can’t drink without a straw, this is simply not a choice. Through CP Teens, I am really lucky to know so many young people with CP/physical disabilities and when I went onto Facebook following the plastic ban announcement, my newsfeed was filled with panic and worry about the fact that a vital piece of ‘equipment’ was about to be banned.

So, I wrote a tweet about it, and I suppose this is where it all starts. I wanted to write this post to get my points out there clearly, concisely and without trolls interrupting. I urge you to read this whatever your stance and to look from different perspectives.

That is where I will start - the other perspective, i.e. the eco/’save the planet’ perspective. Despite the trolls making out that I ‘don’t care about the planet’, I in fact do - very much so. I totally agree that we massively need to cut down on plastic waste. As intelligent humans, it is down to us to ensure that our waste does not harm wildlife and sealife. I am very much an animal lover myself; we rescue dogs as a family and I am that person who cries if we pass roadkill or an animal kills another animal on a wildlife programme. Of course we need to do everything we can to prevent the suffering and harm of animals. I never said we should carry on as we are, I said a blanket ban that is blindly applied will not work and is ill thought out.

I suggested that plastic straws should still be available, but not as they are widely available now - i.e. only for those in genuine need. Able-bodied ‘Liz’ who is 45-years-old who goes into a bar and gets two straws in her Diet Coke does not need them at all - it is this type of usage that needs to be targeted, not those with physical disabilities who genuinely have no choice. If this type of usage was targeted, we’d soon see a massive decrease in the use of plastic straws. Plastic straws still need to be available in shops and establishments upon request - unless you have a physical disability effecting coordination and/or mouth control, you will probably not realise how vital these inexpensive tubes of plastic are.

My sister actually came up with a really good idea. She suggested that people like me who genuinely need plastic straws should be able to get a card (a bit like the Blue Badge scheme) and then, on presentation to a bar/restaurant/shop etc. you can purchase them.

So, why not eco-friendly alternatives? I’ve lost count of the number of messages, comments and emails I have had suggesting alternatives. I want to make one thing very clear - I am not against using an environmentally friendly alternative at all, in fact I am all for that. But, there is currently no suitable alternative out there for people with physical disabilities. Hence this whole debate - like many people with disabilities, I have enough to sort out in my day-to-day to life without picking battles that do not need fighting. Why on earth would I be wasting my time and energy if actually, there was a perfectly adequate alternative out there? To name a few, here is why alternatives do not work:

1. PAPER STRAWS:

Disintegrate almost straight away, become mangled (major issue for people who have problems with mouth control) and do not work at all with hot drinks.

2. METAL STRAWS:

Dangerous with hot drinks (burn your mouth), unpleasantly cold with chilled/frozen drinks, very difficult to grip in your mouth, scratch against your teeth (sometimes even damaging your teeth, and at the very least, it goes through you!), do not bend, add an unpleasant metallic taste to your drink and are dangerous for people with a bite reflex.

3. BIODEGRADABLE STRAWS:

Despite appearing to be identical to the plastic straw, they’re not. The clue is in the name - ‘biodegradable’. So, they are quickly and easily mangled as they are much softer. They also only work up to a temperate of 30 degrees and typically hot drinks are 70 degrees.

4. SILICONE STRAWS:

Very, very soft making it really difficult for people who have mouth control problems. Personally, the texture goes through me - I feel as if I have a marshmallow in my mouth! They add an unpleasant taste (so who knows what they’re giving off?!) and do not work with hot drinks.

5. BAMBOO STRAWS:

Not effective, quickly mangled, do not bend and are no good for hot drinks. And, people are asking me to ’think of the turtles’, well on that note, what about the pandas?!

6. REUSABLE PLASTIC STRAWS:

So, these are the best of a bad bunch. It depends what kind of reusable plastic straw it is, but if they’re the rigid, hard ones, these are not suitable - they’re hard to grip, they actually can be quite sharp (especially dangerous for people with a bite reflex) and there is no bend in them. The softer, flexible reusable plastic are more ‘user friendly’, although still present problems. Again, they’re quite easily chewable and do not cope with hot drinks; they tend to be a lot thicker than the standard throw away plastic straws meaning that you get a lot more liquid at once, which can be dangerous, especially with hot drinks. Furthermore, with reusable straws, you have got hygiene issues. Whilst this might not be such an issue for personal use (provided you can thoroughly clean your own straws, which I actually can’t like so many others who need a straw to drink), what about environments such as hospitals and care homes where there are many, many people needing straws? Many disabled people already have compromised immunity and reusable plastic straws can harbour bacteria.

A lot of people have acted angry and frustrated when I have explained why alternatives that are currently available do not work. It has actually astounded me the number of able-bodied people who have questioned why I can’t use alternatives and then become abusive, often telling me that ‘I don’t know what I am talking about’. Well able-bodied Sue, I’ve had Cerebral Palsy for 23 years and I’ve relied on straws from the day I was too old for a beaker, so I think I’m much more qualified to comment than you are. But, thanks anyway. Please don’t keep suggesting alternatives and then act frustrated and angry when the person who relies on straws explains why they do not work.

Speaking of beakers, some have even suggested I take a children’s beaker everywhere with me. Really?! I’m 23 years old. Also, I thought the whole thing was about the reduction of plastic - beakers are made out of plastic! And yes you could argue ‘but they’re reusable?’. But if I could swallow my pride and use one, they wouldn’t last long. As I said, I’m 23 and I do enjoy a range of beverages, we’re not just talking squash and water here, haha!

There are also many people saying not to worry as ‘medical’ straws will still be available. Whilst I cannot comment on their effectiveness as I have never tried them, how can it be acceptable for people with disabilities to have to pay £8.60 for a prescription to be able to drink?!

To me, the banning of plastic straws comes across to be a token gesture for us to be more environmentally friendly. Surely, if we were serious about the reduction of plastic waste, what about plastic cutlery, plastic cups, novelty plastic beakers that you can get in high street stores such as New Look? Just to name a few. Go down to your local supermarket and start looking at packaging and you’ll probably realise that there are so, so many other ways we can start to tackle this issue if we are serious about it. The use of plastic straws as a necessity by disabled people is not the issue here.

Despite the trolls telling me I ‘hadn’t done my research’, I actually have. Did you know that plastic straws aren’t actually even causing the issue in the first instance? Basically, like a lot of small plastics and objects, when landfill leaks it is these that fall through the gap and end up in the sea, causing harm to the animals. So, surely we need a solution to dispose of small plastics responsibly to prevent them from falling through the gaps in landfill?! Maybe if the trolls had done THEIR research they would have realised that instead of basically targeting disabled people for being disabled and therefore needing a straw for a basic function, they perhaps needed to target the landfills and how we can have a functioning` system for the responsible disposal of small plastics? Anyone would think I was personally going down to the beach and sticking my straws up turtles’ noses the way people are going on at me online!

I was also watching The One Show the other night and they covered the plastic waste issue. I whacked up the volume as I thought “well, as I’ve been quoted on every news programme across the world, why would The One Show be any different?!”, haha! Luckily, I didn’t appear and I wasn’t quoted, which I suppose saved me from a whole new set of trolls! But, I did learn even more. Did you know that the majority of plastic waste that is in UK seas and on our shores actually isn’t from the UK?! So, even if we did ban plastic straws, it’s not even our plastic waste on the whole doing the harm anyway!

I am now starting to get a little fed up with the constant messages saying I ‘don’t care’, that I am ‘an animal murderer’, that I have ‘no empathy’ … the list goes on! It does make me laugh though when people say I have ‘no empathy’ - oh, okay then, but you clearly have no empathy either as you’re quite happy to shout abuse at someone with a disability who is speaking up to ask if something, which enables them to drink, is not banned altogether!

I never for one minute thought this whole thing would go viral. But it did. However, I only saw this as a good thing - at the end of the day, before the policy is blindly applied, the voices of people who rely on straws for such a basic function need to be heard. I’m not a political person and I certainly didn’t post it just to have a go at the government (despite this being a suggestion from many). There were so many people hitting social media to outline the effects this would have on many disabled people, for some reason the press chose me to feature - as a result I’ve been branded as some sort of ‘chief planet wrecker’.

It’s a good job that the abuse I have received hasn’t really bothered me. Instead I have took to bed each night and responded with witty comments and chuckled myself to sleep! E.g. one person put “WHAT?? Is she allergic to paper?!”, to which I responded with “Nah … although, I have got a potentially life-threatening nut allergy!”, haha! I’ve been told to die, that I’m putting my disability on and ‘of course’ I can manage without a straw, that I’m going to get cancer from the chemicals off straws ... the list goes on!

I’d like to thank everyone who has supported me this past week and thank you for all the lovely messages - for every 10 trolls, a lovely message totally wipes them out! I’d also like to say a massive thank you to Tanni Grey Thompson who has backed me all the way. To have Tanni’s support has been amazing.

I will not be responding to any more emails asking me why not paper, metal straws etc. I have had so, so many and I feel I’ve offered many explanations now, with this blog post being my final explanation. I need to return to running CP Teens rather than arguing with trolls.

I hope whatever your viewpoint, you can see why I spoke out.

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