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Banning Disposable Cups Might Help the Environment, but It Will Hurt People Like Me

You may have heard of the recent move to ban single-use cups in coffee shops around the San Francisco Bay Area. With the ongoing concerns about climate change and the environment, coffee shops are adopting less wasteful ways to serve coffee to their customers, by using glass or metal vessels which people may rent with a deposit, and by charging 25 cents for a disposable cup. Good idea, right? Not if you’re a person with a disability.

Let me start by sharing my own situation. I have limited mobility in my shoulders, and my right hand is not fully functional. With my left hand, I drive an electric wheelchair. I am unable to grip a glass by the side or hold a full mug by the handle with my right hand. I am, however, able to cradle the bottom fairly securely in the palm of my hand, or rest it on my lap and cup the side to steady it.

This is where glass becomes an issue for me. For one thing, it’s heavy. Because of my disability, I have little upper body strength, so carrying a glass cup full of coffee while driving my wheelchair is very challenging. Also, a glass vessel full of coffee gets hot, so cupping the bottom or the side while balancing it on my lap is not sustainable. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Why not attach a cupholder to your chair? Well, I’ve spent at least $150 on half a dozen different cupholders to no avail. The main issue is that once attached, they jut out on the side, and I am forever banging against door frames, corners and objects. I’ve snapped off the plastic ones, torn off the fabric ones and mangled the metal ones. Carrying my coffee is my only option.

Glass is out. But what about bringing my own lightweight vessel that doesn’t conduct heat, or renting one of theirs? OK, but how would I store and transport it? Remember: limited mobility. I don’t carry a bag on the back of my chair because I can’t reach the back of my chair. I have a small armrest bag, suitable for carrying my wallet, phone and keys, but there’s no room for a coffee cup. I’d have to tote a cup around in my lap until I could return it or bring it home.

It’s still OK, though, because most of the coffee shops still keep single-use cups I can request. I just have to pay a 25 cent fee… wait… what? I’m unable to use the cups available, so I have to pay extra for the cup I can use? Well, let’s just call it what it is: a levy for being disabled or elderly. Why not place a coin box outside of every elevator, ramp and accessible toilet while we’re at it?

I know it sounds like I’m picking apart a great idea, and I guess I am. But like any great idea, it’s not perfect in the beginning. It needs honing, and it’s not going to work for everyone. I fully support combating climate change and protecting our environment, and I’m always willing to do my part when I can, and make sacrifices if necessary. I think this concept is a terrific way to start for many people, but some of us simply cannot make the switch, and we shouldn’t be marginalized or taxed for it.

So, what do we do? I’m no scientist or engineer, so I don’t have the answers. But we humans are a clever species. We have accomplished many feats, and are constantly developing new innovations. I have faith we are capable of solving this issue in a way that includes everyone. In fact, there are many types of bioplastics currently being developed across the globe. Perhaps, if the coffee service industry invested in these projects, single-use cups would no longer be a major issue. In the meantime, cafes need to remember that people with disabilities drink coffee too, and our needs must also be met if we are to remain loyal customers.

Getty image by Franik Gu.