Proposed San Francisco Straw Ban May Limit Accessibility for People With Disabilities

by Kate Larsen
Sunday, July 15, 2018

Cities around the country have anti-plastic straw legislation in the works, including San Francisco. While reducing plastic waste is positive for the environment, it’s concerning for some people with disabilities.

“Anything that attempts to limit the amount of plastic waste in our environment today, is very positive,” says Nina McCullaugh, who is visiting her daughter in San Francisco from Los Angeles County, where Malibu is also working to ban plastic straws. Three years ago, video of a plastic straw stuck in a sea turtle’s nose went viral. Now, people around the world are ditching their single-use plastic straws in favor of biodegradable paper and reusable straws.

“All of a sudden, everyone around the world is focused on this problem and taking action and that’s what we’re doing with this ordinance,” said Charles Sheehan, who works for San Francisco’s Department of the Environment.

If the ordinance passes, he says the city’s plastic straw ban will go into effect in 2019 and will also include plastic stirrers, cup plugs and cocktail picks. “The material is recyclable, but they fall through the cracks of the recycling machinery and so it’s hard to capture them, plus they also act as litter on our streets,” explains Sheehan, who adds, “Sixty-seven percent of the litter going into our bay comes from the street and it’s also usually single-use food packaging or products.”

Tanya Weijnschenk lives in Hercules and hopes San Francisco’s ordinance will inspire other Bay Area counties to ban plastic straws and food accessories. “When they first change it, you’re like, ugh I really don’t like it, but once you get used to the change, I think everyone is going to fall into it and be fine knowing that it’s helping the environment.” But San Francisco resident Luis Barahona has a different perspective. “One of the criticisms I’ve heard is for the disabled community, it’s something that a lot of disabled folks use and it’s a tool that they need,” he said.

Many people with disabilities fear the plastic straw ban will limit their accessibility at restaurants, stores and other service establishments. For many people with disabilities, flexible plastic straws are the easiest and safest way to eat and drink food. Most paper straws dissolve and get soggy and many reusable straws, made out of metal for example, have no flex and can pose a hazard for people with mobility issues. But there are reusable silicone straws, which do bend, and could be an option for some people with disabilities.

Supervisor Katy Tang, who sponsored the legislation, says there is a provision in the ordinance that accounts for people with medical conditions who require straws. She says the implementation of that exception is still in the works.

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