Plastic straws could be on their way out – but you might be surprised that I’m not jumping for joy just yet.
I’ve been promoting the #PlasticFree movement on social media ever since Blue Planet II brought to our attention just how bad the plastic pollution problem is, and I’m throwing my support behind several initiatives to tackle it. So when headlines hit earlier today that the government may be about to ban plastic straws I should have been thrilled – but I’m not.
Like anything when it comes to ethical living, plastic pollution is a complex issue. The ban on plastic microbead use in cosmetics that came into effect at the start of 2018 felt like the first successful step on the road to reducing plastic pollution – so why isn’t the proposed straw ban an equally positive move?
Plastic straws are a massive problem. It’s estimated that the UK uses around 8.5 billion straws a year according to the Marine Conservation Society, and there’s no denying that charges and bans do work. There has been an 85% reduction in the use of single-use plastic bags since the 2015 5p charges were introduced, so potentially the ban could help tackle the amount of straws we discard.
When questioned about the proposed ban, Environment Secretary Michael Gove said ‘if it is bad, then banning it is a good thing.’ But I’m afraid I don’t agree.
I’ve noticed many people praising the proposals on Twitter and questioning why we even need straws. It’s true that for many of us they are just a bad habit, but many disabled people rely on straws. Michaela Hollywood, a Campaigns Officer at Muscular Dystrophy UK says she’s not even sure she would be alive in a world without straws.
Although there are more eco-friendly alternatives available, such as paper, bamboo, glass or stainless steel, these aren’t always suitable. Many of them are not flexible enough or suitable for hot drinks. Metal and glass can be dangerous for people with neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s, and reusable plastic straws can raise hygiene concerns.
Personally, I am not overjoyed at the idea of a ban on straws because although it’s potentially a big win for the environment, it could make the lives of many disabled people much more difficult.
My uncle Dave, who sadly passed away in 2014, had a rare condition that affects muscles, called Myositis. Towards the end of his life he was a full time wheelchair user and had pretty much completely lost the use of his hands. He had to have a straw for every drink – hot or cold, and it was simple things like straws that allowed him to maintain his independence and live in his own home with support from carers.
Although he is no longer with us, I can see that a ban on straws would have had an extremely negative impact on his life without a suitable replacement being easily available – and I fear that the Government are rushing to ban straws while the topic is popular without fully considering the impact of their decision.
The Environment Secretary himself was recently photographed in the press with a disposable coffee cup, and the House of Commons came under criticism yesterday when data revealed that the number of straws purchased by Parliament has doubled in the last 3 years – from 6,000 in 2014/15 to 12,250 in 2016/17.
The Government’s Environmental plan announced in January was met with mixed reaction. Many criticised them for not doing enough with a vague commitment to eradicate undefined ‘avoidable plastic waste’ in the UK by 2042 – a deadline that for many isn’t coming soon enough.
Gove also suggested that EU law could currently block him from banning plastic straws, saying “there is some concern that EU laws mean that we can’t ban straws at the moment”. Brussels has now hit back, with the vice president of the European Commission tweeting earlier to say that the EU ban on single-use plastics is coming this Summer, and straws have been specifically named.
Meanwhile, the Queen has been praised for her move to ban plastic across the royal estates in recent weeks.
It all seems very convenient that the government would jump on such a popular topic just as crucial Brexit talks are concluding and the Prime Minister is due to set out the position in a speech next week. The environment was also identified by a Tory think-tank as the key issue for young voters – a demographic where they significantly lost out in the last general election.
We need to be mindful that we are not succumbing to ‘political greenwashing’ – a pushing of a popular agenda to harness the interest of a sustainably-minded demographic of voters without any true impact behind it, or to detract attention from the ongoing Brexit negotiations.
Sustainability is already struggling with inclusivity. If we ban plastic straws without a suitable alternative, not only do we risk alienating disabled people and excluding them from the conversation, we potentially create health risks for them too, and that’s not acceptable.
In the case of plastic straws, those of us that can manage without them should take responsibility and refuse a straw, but instead of rushing through a ban to boost popularity ratings, the Government should be working with disability groups and industry to find suitable, sustainable replacements that improve accessibility without compromising the environment.