Image: AP

On Monday, Starbucks announced it would be joining the bevy of fast food eateries that have pledged to be more environmentally friendly. The global coffee giant is phasing out single-use plastics straws from more than 28,000 of its stores worldwide come 2020, a move Starbucks says will eliminate over a billion plastic straws a year.

Proponents of ridding the world of plastic might be quick to call this a big win for the environment. But as these bans become more popular, disability rights activists have started speaking up about how they can erode accessibility.

When blanket straw bans are implemented “people with disabilities are left out,” Kathryn Carroll, a policy analyst at the Center for Disability Rights, told Earther.

Starbucks has not responded to Earther’s request for comment on whether its straw ban will make exceptions for people with disabilities. In its press release and on Twitter, the company has stated that while a straw-less lid will become the new standard for iced beverages, alternative material straws made from paper or compostable plastic will still be available upon request.

Alternative-material straws, however, often don’t cut it. They can be unsatisfactory and even hazardous for some individuals with disabilities. For instance, paper straws don’t hold up well in hot liquids and metal straws, if they’re not bendable, can be virtually unusable.

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After Starbucks announced the ban, folks took to Twitter to raise their concerns about accessibility. From the corporation’s responses so far, it’s not clear the company really gets the issues at hand.

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Starbucks’ straw ban isn’t the first to garner criticism from disability rights advocates. Recently, Vancouver became the first Canadian city get rid of plastic straws. Disability groups were quick to urge the local government to reconsider an outright ban. Carroll says some of her colleagues involved in the anti-straw debate in New York City, which just recently introduced a bill that would forego all plastic straws for paper ones in eateries across all five boroughs, have been frustrated by its one-sidedness.

“There hasn’t been any outreach [from the anti-straw movement] to the disability community to make sure that their rights are protected and that they weren’t discriminated against, even if it was unintentional in the first place,” she continued.

In Carroll’s view, a better way forward is for cafes, restaurants, and bars to keep a more accessible plastic straw on hand for those who need it. The American Chemical Council also supports this approach, acknowledging that there are circumstances where plastic straws are needed. And some folks seem to be listening: The recent Seattle straw ban makes an exception for people who require a plastic straw for medical reasons, for instance.

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Disability rights advocates and environmentalists are not at necessarily at odds with each other. But there needs to be a dialog between these groups. To Carroll’s knowledge, Starbucks did not reach out to disability groups to help design the straw phase-out plan.

“We are troubled by this because Starbucks has been a leader in disability access,” she told Earther. Indeed, Starbucks has received recognition as a top employer for disability inclusion and has previously sponsored awards for disability rights.

Starbucks’ announcement comes at the heels of a wide variety of efforts to tackle the global plastic pollution crisis by banning straws. When straws aren’t recycled, they end up in our landfills, gathering in our rivers, lakes, and oceans. In a press release, Starbucks’ CEO Kevin Johnson referred to the company’s plan as a “significant milestone to achieve our global aspiration of sustainable coffee, served to our customers in more sustainable ways.”

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Let’s just hope folks who need plastic straws aren’t left behind as Starbucks marches toward that worthy goal.