Eco-Ableism in Environmental Activism

By Rebecca MacGill

Single use plastics have been a hot topic for a hot minute with plastic straws at the center ever since a video originally surfaced of a turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nose. Bans on plastic straws that have been implemented throughout the country for years are well intentioned and aim to reduce plastic pollution. However, widespread bans can do more harm than good to the people who rely on them in their day to day lives.

Disabled people have spoken about and against the bans for years, though many people haven’t seemed to notice. In Seattle, a ban on all single use plastic straws and utensils has been effective since July 2018, prohibiting all food service businesses from using any disposable plastic straws and utensils. Before the ban was implemented, however, the people who would be affected most were not consulted, including Shaun Bickley, the co-chair of Seattle Commission for People with DisAbilities, who states the group was not consulted before the ban was passed. 

Many alternatives have been provided for single use plastics, such as metal, paper, bamboo, and biodegradable plastic. Most alternatives have their own disadvantages that are easy enough for many people to work around, but can create barriers for people who cannot easily use or re-use them.

Infographics for #StrawBan #SuckItAbleism Advocates | Rambling Justice
Above: a graphic showing different types of straws and risks associated. At the bottom is text stating “hurt turtles are devastating. So are children and adults aspiring liquid into their lungs”. Graphic by @rollwthepunches on twitter.

Allergy, injury, and sensory risks are serious issues for many people that they cannot easily work around, though plastic straws are not the only accommodations that people have pushed back against. Pushes to be more carbon neutral through advocating for public transport, reducing meat consumption, or even in sustainable housing can be exclusive to disabled people and leave them out of the movement for sustainability entirely. 

Most importantly, plastic straws are not the problem, and are often a straw man for a larger issue. The statistic that Americans throw away 500 million straws daily is outdated and unverified, though it is still the one many bans are based on. Between 1950 and 2015, annual plastic production increased by 445.7 million tons though less than 10% of them are recycled. Each year, 8 million tons, or 3%, of plastic waste get into the oceans and harm wildlife. Though out of all the plastic pollution single use plastic straws make up less than 1%, a significant decrease from the 46% of discarded fishing gear making up the Pacific Garbage Patch and the tonnes of microplastics in the ocean. Limiting access to certain items including straws can limit access to accommodations many disabled people need to be independent. “Many of the positive changes made to habits and lifestyle, changes that could contribute to minimising climate change and rehabilitating the environment, are difficult or impossible for disabled people to do,” Elizabeth Wright, a writer and disabilities activist, explains. Excluding disabled people from environmental movements or using activism as an excuse to discriminate is called eco-ableism, and harms the millions of disabled people who need accommodations in their day to day life. 

Sustainability, in many regards, is a privilege that people fail to take into account when advocating for consumer action. As of 2019, disabled people make up 2 billion people worldwide according to WHO, 20% of which have increased functional difficulties-though are often thought of when it comes to designing accessible products or buildings. Disabled people have largely been left to advocate for their own lives and accommodations for years with few people listening. The solution to helping the environment and saving the planet has to be inclusive to all living on Earth, including disabled people. 

Sources and Read More:

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/07/11/627773979/why-people-with-disabilities-want-bans-on-plastic-straws-to-be-more-flexible

https://creakyjoints.org/advocacy/plastic-straw-bans-bad-for-people-with-disabilities/

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/08/16/plastic-straw-alternatives-often-bad-planet-people-disabilities/1761397001/

https://uxdesign.cc/climate-change-disability-and-eco-ableism-why-we-need-to-be-inclusive-when-trying-to-save-the-88bb61e82e4e

https://www.nap.edu/read/5799/chapter/8

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0261018319868362 https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/plastic-pollution

3 comments

  • Hi! Thank you so much for this! Could you talk more about how advocating for reducing meat consumption can be exclusive to disabled people?

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  • Thank you for addressing this topic. My grandson has a disability and had previously used metal straws to drink. Unfortunately, he fell while using one and suffered a pretty severe oral injury. No more metal straws for him. Thankfully we can still buy plastic straws and he is getting better at drinking without a straw, but I still cringe thinking about that incident.

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  • Hi, thanks for your question!
    First off, I am not disabled and do not and will never speak for disabled people. None of the ideas in the articles and comments about how disabled people are affected are my own but are instead from disabled people or legislation that directly affects disabled people.
    Reducing meat consumption can be exclusive in the same way advocating for consumer actions is in general. Sustainability is at large a privilege that relies on people having the ability to make certain changes to their lives, which many people can’t as they need accommodations or cannot afford alternatives to what they use. The same applies to many other changes made to live more sustainably, including switching from liquid to bar soaps or walking instead of driving, and reducing meat is one of the most commonly brought up as it is a feasible change for most people.
    Reducing meat consumption is in no way a problem only for disabled people or a problem for most disabled people, and there are many people living with disabilities that do not affect their diets. However, there are many people who have allergies that can prevent them from limiting meat in their diets, such as severe sulfur or nickel allergies. Under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), food allergies/intolerance can be included as disabilities that restrict diet if strict. Additionally, illnesses or conditions that require a person to need more of a certain nutrient can make it difficult to reduce meat in their diet, or conditions that reduce a person’s energy can make it difficult to cook meatless meals some days.
    As well, reducing meat consumption while still getting all the nutrients a person needs can be expensive, which many people, disabled people included, can have a difficult time sustaining. In the U.S., disabled people experience poverty rates twice as high as people without disabilities, which can make it difficult to afford expensive alternatives to meat that still include enough nutrients.
    Of course, that’s not to say that disabled people cannot be vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian. Here are some links to disabled vegans talking about their experiences:
    http://meloukhia.net/2017/02/on_veganism_and_disability/
    http://veganfeministnetwork.com/is-veganism-ableist-a-disabled-vegan-perspective/
    https://acti-veg.com/disability-and-veganism/
    As far as I could tell, there are no conditions that make it impossible to limit the amount of meat a person eats though there are conditions that make it significantly more difficult to do so. As always, it is best to do more research if you are interested in learning more about the topic, and the best people to talk to about disability are disabled people themselves.
    Hope that helps!

    Sources to look into:
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11117615/
    https://ncd.gov/newsroom/2017/disability-poverty-connection-2017-progress-report-release
    https://poverty.ucdavis.edu/faq/how-poverty-status-related-disability
    https://www.ada.gov/q&a_lesley_university.htm
    https://www.verywellhealth.com/sulfite-allergy-82911
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3667300/

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