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Disposable Plastic Straws Suck. Try These Disability-Friendly Alternatives

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It’s the last straw for disposable straws. People around the world are becoming aware of the massive impact single-use drinking straws have on the environment. In the U.S. alone, 500 million disposable plastic straws are used every day and thrown away, filling landfills, polluting oceans and killing sea creatures including turtles and dolphins. In response to this crisis, cities and countries are banning or limiting the use of disposable plastic straws in restaurants and bars. But in our rush to reduce the harm caused by straws, we must not forget those who use them out of necessity, not convenience: people with disabilities.

Millions of people with disabilities need straws to drink for reasons including muscle weakness or paralysis, swallowing problems or involuntary movements. I have cerebral palsy and have difficulty lifting and holding cups and glasses due to muscle spasticity and lack of coordination. I need straws and use them daily.

Sadly, the straw debate has increasingly devolved into a (mostly online) battle between environmentalists and disability rights activists. As someone who belongs to both groups, I’ve watched these arguments rage on with far too many — dare I say it — straw man arguments on both sides. Some environmentalists level blanket accusations of laziness at straw users, seemingly unaware that millions of people depend on straws to drink. On the flip side, some people with disabilities cling to vague excuses and fears about reusable straws, refusing to recognize the significance of the plastic waste problem.

Does it have to be this way? Reducing plastic waste shouldn’t include demonizing people with disabilities who need straws. Unfortunately, we live in a society where not all people with disabilities have access to the support services they need, and obtaining and/or using reusable straws may be difficult or impossible for some. But having a disability and doing your part to help the environment are not mutually exclusive. I believe the severity of the plastic waste problem mandates that we as a disability community be involved with exploring alternatives to single-use plastic straws, and ensuring they are widely available and affordable to those who need them most.

To help resolve this debate, I purchased several different types of drinking straws to review them from a disability perspective. I assessed them in three key areas to determine their usefulness: Ease of use, durability and overall rating from 1 to 5 stars. Of course, all opinions are my own and based on my research, experience, and the experiences of other people I know. I can’t possibly be familiar with every reader’s specific circumstances, but I’ve done my best to include detailed information to help you choose the right type of straw for your disability needs. And most of all, I hope you’ll feel confident that you can choose sustainable straws over disposable plastic.

Reusable Plastic Straws

Many people with disabilities prefer to drink out of plastic cups with lids. Closed cups reduce the chance of spilling beverages on ourselves or on essential items such as phones and laptops. Plastic cups almost always come with a reusable plastic straw.
Contigo plastic cup with lid and straw.

Ease of Use:  Four out of five stars

  • Reusable plastic straws come in a wide variety of lengths and thicknesses. Most are stiff, but some are flexible or bent at an angle.
  • Some plastic straws are dishwasher safe, but use caution with thinner and flexible ones.

Durability:  three out of five stars

  • Reusable plastic straws can last from a few months up to a few years. Avoid cheap plastic straws which may leach chemicals such as BPA as they age.
  • Plastic straws are more likely to absorb stains and bacteria than other materials. Use a straw cleaner and replace worn out straws promptly.

Overall Rating:  three out of five stars

I recommend reusable plastic straws. They are easy to find with a durable cup and lid online or at any grocery or discount store. You can also use other types of straws with the plastic cups.

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Silicone Straws

Silicone kitchen items are a hot trend, and once you’ve tried them it’s easy to understand why. Silicone straws have a number of positive qualities which may lead people with disabilities to prefer them over other sustainable straws.

GlugGlug silicone bendy straws for people with disabilities, reusable and environmentally friendly.

Ease of Use: five stars

  • Silicone straws are very flexible. You can bend them closer to your mouth and they bounce back when released, reducing dripping from the end of the straw.
  • Silicone straws can be straight or angled and come in different thicknesses for regular beverages, smoothies or thickened liquids.
  • Silicone straws are ideal for many people with sensory issues, though a few may find them unpleasant. They’re soft and safe to bite, with no toxic chemicals. They’re made of the same material as the “chewelry” many autistic kids and adults find helpful.
  • Silicone straws are safe to use for hot and cold drinks.

Durability:  Four out of five stars

  • Silicone straws can last for many years.
  • Silicone straws should be cleaned daily to prevent mold. Silicone straws are easier to clean and healthier to use than plastic straws — they are dishwasher safe and can even be sterilized in boiling water.
  • Although it’s not common, I’ve received a few reports of children being able to bite pieces off them while stimming intensely or during a seizure. If your child chews heavily, be aware and check straws often for signs of damage.

Overall Rating:  five stars

I highly recommend silicone straws as the option most likely to work well for a variety of people with disabilities. If you’re not sure which type of straw to buy, try silicone first.

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Metal Straws

The first time I heard about metal straws, I thought “yuck! Who would want to use those?” I can’t stand the feeling of metal on my teeth. I didn’t even want to buy them for the purpose of this test, but then I discovered silicone tipped stainless steel straws. Metal straws seem to be the popular recommendation among environmental advocates, but they present some serious hazards to many in the disability community.

Disability friendly reusable straws in cups. Left, silicone and right, metal with silicone tip,
Disability-friendly reusable straws in cups. Left, silicone and right, metal with a silicone tip.

Ease of Use:  two out of five stars

  • Stainless steel straws stay in place in cups and have a solid feel.
  • May be difficult for those with limited hand coordination to put the silicone tip on the straw.
  • Not flexible at all. The silicone tip is only for comfort when drinking.
  • Use caution if you drink from bed or if someone holds the cup for you. Although the silicone tip cushions the straw, it could still give you a pretty nasty poke in the eye or face compared to flexible straws.
  • Not recommended for people, especially children, who have seizures or involuntary movements as they could cause serious injury.
  • Not safe for hot beverages; you could burn yourself touching the metal. Great for cold drinks on a hot day, though!

Durability:  five stars

  • Stainless steel straws are the most durable kind you can buy.
  • They are easy to clean in the dishwasher or sterilize in boiling water.
  • You can buy replacement tips if they wear out or get lost.

Overall Rating:  Two out of five stars

For durability, stainless steel straws can’t be matched. But without silicone tips, I would not use them. I also don’t use them in bed or any situation where I’d be at higher risk of injuring myself. In light of the recent death caused by a metal straw, and the probability of serious injuries, I do not recommend that anyone with limited balance, coordination or hand strength use metal straws, even with silicone tips. I suggest silicone straws as a safer option.

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Paper Straws

Thus far I have only discussed reusable straws. While restaurants should be able and willing to offer reusable straws, disposable straws make more sense in certain circumstances. Currently, the most common environmentally friendly disposable alternative is paper straws. I bought a batch to try and wasn’t impressed.

Paper straw dissolving in a glass of water.

Ease of Use:

  • Paper straws seem to be mostly straight, not flexible.
  • Not unpleasant to drink from, but they don’t provide the comfortable sensory experience of silicone or even plastic.

Durability:  one star out of five

  • Paper straws only last a couple of hours.

I’m no Bill Nye, but this science gal did a little experiment in the interest of saving the world from single-use plastic straws. I put a paper straw in a glass of plain water out on the counter and checked it every hour for four hours. The results were not great. The straw lasted for two hours before bits of paper started to flake into the water. By hour four, rubbing the straw with fingers left big flecks of paper behind. This isn’t the best way to get more fiber in your diet.

Overall Rating: one star out of five

Paper straws might have a place in restaurants where patrons typically only use them for an hour or two, but they are not particularly disability-friendly. Aside from being biodegradable and disposable, they have no redeeming qualities in comparison to other straws. Note: it’s possible other companies make better paper straws. If you have had a good experience with paper straws, please let me know in the comments. I would love to be able to change my mind about paper straws. But for now, I do not recommend them. Reusable is the way to go.

Pasta Straws

My co-worker Jordan told me she tried a straw made from pasta. This next review is her experience.
Image of a long piece of pasta in a mojito at a restaurant.
I was given a pasta straw at a restaurant in Los Angeles. I was drinking a mojito, and was concerned at first that the alcohol would cause the noodle to break apart faster. Much to my surprise, it didn’t.

Ease of Use:  three out of five stars

  • This straw is fairly easy to use provided you don’t have a gluten or wheat allergy or intolerance.
  • The straw I used was straight and rather wide (like a smoothie straw). I haven’t seen curved pasta straws, but if you wanted to, you could probably make one.
  • It does have a bit of a pasta-ish taste, but once you get used to it, it’s not that bad.

Durability:  two out of five stars

  • The straw is sturdy. It’s not going to bend while you are using it, which is a downside if you need that flexibility.
  • Unlike paper straws, it did not degrade while I was using it. I didn’t conduct any science experiments though, so I don’t know how the straw would hold up beyond two hours. My guess is it wouldn’t.

Overall rating:  three out of five stars

For restaurants or places that want to provide disposable straws, I think pasta straws have a lot of pastabilities. Obviously, they are not an option for anyone with gluten or wheat allergies. I haven’t seen straws as thick as the one I was served, but if you wanted to try pasta straws at home with a thin liquid, bucatini would be your best bet.

Biodegradable Plastic Straws

Although I’ve listed some excellent reusable straws above, there are still situations where a disposable straw may be the best or only choice. Since paper straws don’t seem to work well, companies are now making biodegradable and compostable plastic straws using plant material. Based on my experience, these straws seem like a viable alternative to other more harmful single use plastics. And on another positive note, plant-based plastic can be used to make environmentally-friendly disposable drink lids, takeout containers and more. I now carry these straws in my backpack, along with a few reusable straws, for situations where no straws are available.

Compostable bendable straws not made from corn plastic.

Ease of Use:  five stars

  • This disposable straw is easy to use. It doesn’t feel different from a regular plastic straw at all.
  • Thanks to Jane’s review, I was able to find and test bendable compostable straws. They’re great!
  • Some compostable straws are made with a corn-based plastic called PLA. According to the manufacturers, the heating process destroys any potential allergens in corn. But if you have a severe corn allergy, you may still want to exercise caution.

Durability:  Three out of five stars

  • These straws are sturdy and are no more likely to break than a standard disposable plastic straw.
  • Most PLA plastic is not microwave safe.
  • It’s a disposable straw, so it’s not meant to be used over and over again. But it will not dissolve in your drink and it takes weeks to months to break down in a commercial composting facility.

Overall rating:  Four out of five stars

  • These seem like an excellent replacement for non-recyclable single use plastic straws in virtually all circumstances.

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Are reusable straws hard to clean?

In my experience, reusable straws are extremely easy to clean in comparison to other dishes. With my limited strength and dexterity, they’re the only dishes I can hand wash — others are too heavy or require hard scrubbing. I was able to clean each of the straw types I reviewed easily using running water and a straw cleaner with a dab of dish soap. In addition, as mentioned previously, many reusable straws are dishwasher safe, including silicone, metal and some plastic straws. Silicone and metal can also be boiled to sterilize them.

I have Medicaid-funded personal care assistants, and they have added straw cleaning to their dishwashing routines with minimal time and effort required. They wash my straws every 1-2 days depending on whether they were used for coffee drinks or flavored water, either hand washing them or putting them in the utensil section of the dishwasher. It takes no more than a minute.

Unfortunately, some people with disabilities who need assistance at home don’t have it; this issue goes far beyond straws, but it’s a common reason why someone may need disposable straws some or all of the time.
Karin grasping at straws -- to clean them, of course.

Which straws should I buy for myself or my loved one with a disability?

I hope this guide has helped you decide which straws would be best for your disability-related needs. I spent $50 on straws so you don’t have to. However, if you’re still not sure, silicone straws are my top pick.

Silicone straws with straw cleaners and carrying case. Great if you have a disability and are affected by straw bans.

I like the set above for several reasons. It includes several safe, durable silicone straws and two straw cleaners. It comes with a carrying bag, so you can take your straws with you and never have to worry about restaurant straw bans. I also recommend Seraphina’s Kitchen Reusable Silicone Straws.

Seraphina reusable silicone straws, good for disabled people.

I love traveling with a disability and visiting beautiful, natural places. I worry about the future of our planet, so I try especially hard to be an advocate when I see people trying to solve an environmental problem that intersects with disability. We don’t need to choose between caring about the environment and meeting our needs as people with disabilities. Many of us have choices and alternatives right now. And for those whose choices are more limited, we must advocate for the development of straws that meet disability needs and don’t suck the life out of our Earth. We must continue speaking up about the importance of straws so a variety of options continue to be available where and when we need them. Let’s unite and raise a glass — or a straw — to accessibility for everyone.

Although making a voluntary effort to use alternatives is ideal, the fact remains that…

Straw Bans Suck for People With Disabilities

Since the original publication of this guide, several major cities have passed strict bans on the use of plastic straws. Although I believe people with and without disabilities should make an effort to minimize our use of disposable and non-biodegradable products, I do not support and have never supported these draconian laws which in some cases criminalize the sale or distribution of disposable plastic straws. As we develop new technologies to address this serious issue, it is important that people with disabilities continue to have access to straws in public places. A “straws on request” policy significantly reduces the use of plastic without taking the ability to drink away from people. Encouraging local businesses to adopt such policies is a better use of government time and resources, and does not risk violating the Americans With Disabilities Act requirement for reasonable accommodations in public facilities.
Straws served on request.

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