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.
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 The statistic that Americans throw away 500 million straws daily is outdated and unverified, though it is still the one many bans are based on.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.
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