Students with disabilities push against local and national straw ban efforts

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Photo Credit: Mel Westfall | Daily Texan Staff

For most, plastic straws are a convenience, a decoration or even an environmental hazard. For people such as government junior Caroline Graves, who was born missing part of her spine, straws are more than a dispensable waste product — they’re a crucial part of her life.

“I’m pretty good at hand strength, but sometimes, my hands shake a bit,” Graves, who now uses a wheelchair, said. “If it’s a large drink, or my hands are just unsteady that day, or the cup is kind of weird, I need straws.”

Many restaurants have stopped distributing straws to reduce plastic waste, however, leaving this basic need unavailable. In response to restaurants’ efforts to curb plastic straw distribution, students with disabilities have expressed what impact this move will have on their daily lives.

International companies such as Starbucks have garnered attention for their straw ban announcements, but many efforts can be found closer to home. El Naranjo, a Mexican restaurant on Rainey Street, is one example. Iliana de la Vega, El Naranjo’s owner and chef, said that personal preference and environmental concerns motivated her to lessen her restaurant’s straw usage, only giving then out on request.

“We have a patio at the restaurant, so (customers) threw (straws) all over the place,” de la Vega said. “It was very disgusting to see that happening.”

For advocates of disability-related causes such as Graves, straw bans are a slap in the face. Graves said that straw ban supporters oftentimes leave her feeling belittled.

“You feel like talking about something that is really personal and relevant to your existence, daily comfort and safety, and having people invalidate that — it’s very frustrating,“ Graves said. 

Graves said that some straw ban supporters have also recommended that disabled people bring their own straws. She pointed out that remembering to carry straws with her and planning meetups around restaurants’ straw bans would be challenging.

“It would be really upsetting to ... say, ‘I can’t go there because I need straws,’” Graves said.

Other local restaurants, such as Kerbey Lane Cafe, provide guests with straws on request. Amanda Kuda, Kerbey Lane Cafe’s vice president of communications, said that without a durable, biodegradable alternative available, banning plastic straws is impractical.

“Manufacturers (of) sustainable straw solutions are backed up for months and can’t keep up with the demand,” Kuda said. “Any restaurant that uses straws in tremendously large volumes is going to struggle to even get the solution.”

Graves worries that a straw-on-request policy would help little, instead allowing restaurants to question distributing straws to individuals with “less visible” disabilities.

“I’m lucky to have more of a visible disability, so people are like, ‘She needs straws perhaps,’” Graves said. “People who have more invisible disabilities … might get more judged when asking for (straws).”

When a biodegradable, durable alternative is introduced, Graves said that she’ll accept the product with open arms. But until then, she said she’ll keep advocating for an item that is vital to many disabled individuals’ lives.

“I like to recycle, I like to bring my own bags and things like that. There’s just not a good alternative that’s been introduced,” Graves said. “If we really want to reduce our plastic usage, then why don’t we target that arena a bit more, instead of putting the burden on disabled people?”