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The Last Straw: Eco-Ableism and The Need to Include the Disabled in Conversations about Environmentalism

Sarina's picture

A few years ago, I was eating lunch at one of my favorite restaurants, a local Vietnamese-Thai place called Pho Thai Nam. As our waiter brought over our glasses of water and other table’s drinks, something in the cups caught my attention. Each one had a plastic straw placed in it with a little piece of the paper wrapping covering each top. My dad immediately took his straw out, telling me that he wished they had asked if he wanted one since it just got in the way as he drank anyway. I knew that I did not need one either. Knowing how much plastic ends up in our oceans, I felt guilty wasting a straw. Around this time, a video showing a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose had gone viral, and campaigns like #StopSucking were garnering increasing attention. Seattle had even implemented a citywide ban on plastic straws in July of 2018. Before, I probably would not have paid as much thought if a straw came with my drink—using one at a restaurant had become an unfortunate habit—but news of plastic straw bans kept making headlines, further raising my and others’ consciousness about single-use plastics and their effects on the environment. 

Although I was concerned about the amount of plastic entering our oceans, I was also concerned about individuals like my mom and aunt who had swallowing difficulties and relied on straws to be able to drink easily, prevent spills, and avoid choking on fluids. To my dad and me, straws were simply convenience items, but for other members of our family, straws could be life-saving devices. When our waiter came back, my dad and I suggested that they ask if people would like straws rather than placing them in each cup by default. We also knew the owner of the restaurant, and when she stopped by our table and asked us how we were doing, we mentioned our suggestion to her. She thought it sounded like a good idea. We knew that full bans on plastic straws and other single-use plastics would place an additional burden on those with disabilities, so asking the restaurant to ban them wasn’t ever our plan. But we didn’t see the harm in the waitstaff asking people if they wanted one—those who did not need them, like my dad and me, could then think twice before using them. So that’s what we suggested. We thought that we had solved the conundrum between disability rights and the environmental movement. And when we came back to the restaurant a few months later, it seemed like they had listened. We ordered our drinks, and no straws were placed in them. However, they also didn’t ask us if we wanted any straws either. 

At first, it felt like we had made a success. No more wasted plastic straws. But as I thought more about it, was it a true success? If someone had a disability, they would now need to go through the additional burden of asking for a straw and potentially having to prove their disability. And I assumed the restaurant still had some straws in the back for people if they asked, but what if they didn’t? And how much plastic was that actually saving from entering the ocean? Over 8 million tons of plastic enter our oceans each year, and plastic straws comprise only about 0.025 percent of that total. Reducing our use of plastic straws could serve as a gateway into reducing our consumption of other single-use plastics, but it would take more than a ban on this one item to make progress in our world’s plastic pollution crisis. Reducing the amount of waste we produce when possible and being more mindful of our consumption is a good practice. However, banning items at the expense of people’s health and safety is not. I failed to realize how my actions may have unintentionally placed another burden on disabled people. When trying to tackle complex problems like plastic pollution and the climate crisis, we need to listen to the disability community and other marginalized groups, who are frequently the ones who are most impacted by environmental injustice.


Banning Straws Hurts People // The Last Straw! [CC]

In this video, Jessica Kellgren-Fozard provides an overview of plastic straw bans and how they can be an issue for those who are disabled. Jessica also discusses reusable straw options and some of their safety hazards and drawbacks.


Around the time of the plastic straw bans a few years ago, many disability activists like Alice Wong and s.e. smith, raised concerns about the bans and spoke out against the exclusion of those with disabilities from these conversations. Soon after the #StopSucking campaign begun, #SuckItAbleism became a popular rallying call among disabled activists. The story of the plastic straw ban is fairly old news at this point, but the issues it raised are more relevant than ever. Learning about the plastic straw debate was one of the first times I began thinking more about the intersections of the disability and environmental movements. Importantly, the plastic straw bans highlighted the need to include those with disabilities and other marginalized identities in conversations about environmentalism. As s.e. smith expresses, “What we [disabled people] hear when people don’t want to listen to us is that we don’t matter. This kind of rhetoric is familiar. After all, we’ve been hearing we’re drains on the system and wastes of resources for our entire lives.” 


Alice Wong: Environmentalism as performative wokeness

Caption from Alice Wong: Environmentalism as performative wokeness. An Asian American woman wearing a black jacket, wearing a BiPap mask over her nose, and holding a paper coffee cup with a straw at her mouth. On the right, an illustration of a cup in black with a bendable straw with text that reads, “Shove your performative environmental wokeness in a cup and suck on it with a straw. #SuckItAbleism #StrawBan @SFdirewolf.” Source: 


I recently came across the term eco-ableism, which Mary Imgrund describes as “a form of ableism, or discrimination in favor of able-bodied people” in which “the ‘eco’ comes from environmental activists who, through attempting to save the environment, don’t take into account those with less privilege than them.” As an environmentally-conscious, able-bodied individual, I started wondering about whether any of my own thinking patterns and actions were eco-ableist and how environmentalists could be better allies. Environmental issues tend to be framed as individual problems rather than as collective, societal issues. Rather than holding big corporations accountable for the waste that they produce, we tend to place responsibility on consumers. And part of this ideology has been ingrained in us by the plastic and other polluting industries themselves, who want us to believe that it is all up to us to recycle and reduce our carbon footprints to solve our world’s environmental crises. When thought of individual problems, this can lead to the demonization of those who do not have the same opportunities and privileges to engage in more eco-friendly practices. For example, walking or riding a bike instead of driving may be impossible for a wheelchair user, and buying organic produce may not be an option for those in poverty, many of whom are disabled. On the Disabled Medic blog, Flo discusses “eco-disablism” and the guilt they felt when they were unable to engage in environmental activism due to their disability. Flo writes, “What was a new realisation to me is how much rhetoric and implicit disablism that I had internalised.” This hyper-focus on individual responsibility can create unrealistic expectations that environmental activists feel they must live up to in order to be truly a part of the movement, which alienates those who do not have the means or resources to engage in these practices.

The environmental movement is often not viewed as a disability rights issue, but the two movements are critically linked. And despite the controversy over the ban on plastic straws, the goals of the disability and the environmental movements are often not at odds. In particular, the environmental justice and disability justice movements share many common principles. Both emphasize interdependence in our natural and social worlds. Both recognize intersectionality and how multiple identities shape our experiences of privilege and oppression. Both strive to include those most impacted in discussions and understand the importance of cross-movement solidarity. Both fight against capitalistic politics that view environments and bodies as commodities to be exploited and valued in terms of how much they can produce. And both advocate for sustainability and recognize the value of biodiversity. Although issues like the plastic straw debate seem to put disabled activists and environmental activists at odds, those with disabilities are some of the people who care most about the environment, and they are some of the individuals most affected by environmental injustice, including climate change. Kirsten Schultz, a disabled activist, states, "Plastic straw bans often position people with disabilities on the wrong side of the battle to save the environment — as if we don’t care about our world, too. As someone who needs to use plastic straws and disposable wipes, I can’t help the fact that I have needs that aren’t 100 percent environmentally friendly."

Conversations around the plastic straw bans brought much-needed attention to the connection between environmentalism and disability rights. For able-bodied environmentalists like myself, these conversations served as good starting points, but our conversations should not stop here. And these conversations have continued to go on by many disabled activists—listen to this recent discussion on Disability Justice, Climate Change, and Eco-Ableism with Daphne Frias, Annie Segarra, and Gabi Serrato Marks. We need to continue expanding beyond the issue of plastic straws and analyze the other ways in which those with disabilities are left out of conversations and decision-making relating to pollution, climate change, and other environmental crises. Human bodies affect and are affected by the environment, and recognizing the intersections between disability studies and environmental studies is critical to creating a greener, more equitable future.




I would like to thank my classmates and professor, Kristin Lindgren, for supporting me in this project. I would also like to thank the numerous disabled folx who share their knowledge and experiences and those who are working to create a world that is more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable.


Further Readings/References (in addition to the ones linked above):


Plastic Straw Bans, Eco-Ableism:

Bruener, Ally. “Why It's Hard to Live Sustainably as a Disabled Person.” Living, 13 Mar. 2021, 

Hamraie, Aimi. Episode 4b: Contra* Straw Ban with ALICE WONG. 4 Mar. 2019,

Olson, Sarah Rose. “Plastic Straws and Beyond: Able-Bodied Environmentalists Educating Ourselves About Eco-[Dis]Ableism.” Environmental Justice at Western, 17 May 2019,

Rodriguez-Cayro, Kyli. “7 People Share Why They're Against Plastic Straw Bans.” Bustle, Bustle, 16 Aug. 2018,

smith, s.e. “To Each According To Their Own Abilities: Disability and Environmentalism.” This Ain't Livin', 13 Apr. 2012,

Swerdlow, Julia. “#SaveTheTurtles: Ableism and Classism within 'Pop-Culture' Environmentalism.” Polis Media, Polis Media, 8 Jan. 2021, 

Wright, Elizabeth. “Climate Change, Disability, and Eco-Ableism: Why We Need to Be Inclusive to Save the Planet.” Medium, UX Collective, 20 Feb. 2020, 


Climate Change and Disability Justice (I’m thinking about exploring this topic for my final project!)

Barbarin, Imani. “Climate Darwinism Makes Disabled People Expendable.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 31 Oct. 2019,

Belser, Julia Watts. “Disabled People Cannot Be 'Expected Losses' in the Climate Crisis.” Teen Vogue, 23 Sept. 2019,

Belser, Julia Watts. “Disability, Climate Change, and Environmental Violence: The Politics of Invisibility and the Horizon of Hope.” Disability Studies Quarterly, 2020,

Berne, Patty e, and Vanessa Raditz. “To Survive Climate Catastrophe, Look to Queer and Disabled Folks.” YES! Magazine, 31 July 2019,

Ghenis, Alex. “Climate Adaptation, Adaptive Climate Justice, and People with Disabilities.” Union of Concerned Scientists, 27 Apr. 2017,

Horsburgh, J. Astrian. “No Sacrifice People: Ableism, the Climate Crisis, and Dehumanization.” Ability Maine,

Wong, Alice. “Ep 63: Climate Change.” Disability Visibility Project, 18 Nov. 2019,

Yu, Tiffany. “It's Time to Recognize Climate Change as a Disability Rights Issue.” Rooted in Rights, 23 Apr. 2019, 


Other Resources:

Ray, Sarah Jaquette, and Jay Sibara. Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities: Toward an Eco-Crip Theory. University of Nebraska Press, 2018,

Zaikowski, Carolyn. “6 Ways Your Social Justice Activism Might Be Ableist.” Everyday Feminism, 13 Aug. 2020,


gwatkins's picture

Hi Sarina!  I saw your comment on my post and I also think it's super interesting and cool that we both chose to talk about disability and the environment.  I really enjoyed reading what you wrote and also love that you included some images and a personal story to enhance the writing.  I thought the point you made about how only 0.025% of the plastic in the ocean consists of straws yet they were banned in certain places (harming certain people who need them) and its relation to performative activism was especially interesting.  It's very strange to think about how we use so many other forms of plastic on a day to day basis as well as the far greater contribution to plastic in the ocean that certain fishing or other corporations make but plastic straws specifically were the item singled out.  I think it is still going on a bit but I remember the initial anti-straw craze where everyone in my high school was buying metal straws and posting about it on Instagram (in a very performative feeling manner) when they still engaged with other activities that were harmful to the environment without much thought.  Thinking about the intersection of disability and the environment is super important when making certain "eco-friendly" policies because they can make a far greater, more harmful impact on disabled people's lives.

mwernick's picture

Sarina! What a wonderful essay. I really enjoyed going through your thought process when asking the restaurant to switch up their straw systems and the intentional and thoughtful way you analyzed these difficult issues. I have also been thinking a lot about the way all different types of activism seem to leave out disabled folks. I think that as we move forward, disabled folks need to be at the front and center of conversations as all issues are intersectional, to ensure that progress for some doesn't lead to harm for others. Thanks for your thoughts!

mike's picture

We can use biodegradable straws or paper habits instead of plastic straws, our factory also produces some plastic products, materials are now more and more using biodegradable plastic or marine waste plastic materials, people's environmental awareness is also increasing, which is a very good thing.