Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

plastic straws in soda

"The best way environmentalists and plastic-free activists can help is to advocate for nondiscriminatory policies and the manufacturing of environmentally friendly products that are disability-friendly." (Photo: Chemist 4 U/Flickr/cc)

Toward Disability Justice: Don't Forget the Plastic That Gives Me Freedom

Recycling and manufacturing "green" medical supplies seems not to be an issue for environmentalists. But it should be.

It might seem surprising to many that plastics have provided a measure of freedom for many disabled individuals. During the "great plastic straw debate" in the late 2010s, many disabled activists took to social media to raise awareness about how straws were essential to us being able to live independently.

Many disabled people want to live plastic-free. However, doing so can be an insurmountable task for them.

The straw provides the ability to drink freely, especially for those with limited movement. To many in disabled communities, the straw bans represented another instance that left us asking that our basic human dignity be honored. They also provided a microcosm of how movements do not include the disabled perspective. Drinking with straws was posed as an evil to the environment to be avoided lest people try to shame you. But shame shouldn't be an issue for a tool that can be the difference between being able or unable to drink at all. Often, disabled people are relegated to having a nondisabled person determine what we need.

Even before plastic straw bans, there have been instances in which the debate around personal use of plastics has been detrimental to disabled individuals. Several years ago, people on social media mocked Whole Foods when it began selling individually wrapped peeled oranges, adding captions like, "Who is so lazy that they cannot peel their own oranges?" Of course, because of ableism, none of them considered the fact that there are disabled people who cannot peel an orange, and that pre-peeled food provided access they'd never had before. Additionally, for those who are blind or have low vision, where cooking on the stove top can be potentially dangerous, prepped snacks or meals and yes, even, microwaved meals, can be the only means of access to good food, albeit prepackaged in plastic.

Furthermore, for many disabled people, plastics can touch the most intimate parts of our lives; they can be the difference between nutrition and malnutrition, safety and danger.

Many disabled people want to live plastic-free. However, doing so can be an insurmountable task for them. It's not just plastic straws that provide freedom, but plastics in general have made life easier in other ways. As someone with a spinal cord injury, I use a lot of plastic for my everyday care. I was curious if ecofriendly options were available, so I began researching green products for such simple things as catheterization, the technique where a thin tube is inserted into the urethra so that you can relieve your bladder. The results were depressing at best. Latex is a common green alternative, however many disabled people, such as myself, are allergic. Not finding any good solutions, I began asking those who became paralyzed prior to the 1970s what they used; they said they used a metal tube to catheterize themselves. Ouch! Not having access to these plastic supplies is limiting at best and harmful at worst: using nothing, or reusing single-use supplies, putting oneself at an increased risk of infections and bed sores.

Overall, shaming and putting the onus of recycling and reducing the usage of plastics on the individual, especially for those who cannot avoid using plastics, puts an unfair burden on disabled individuals. Using single-use silicone catheters (which are made with plastic material) reduces my chances of getting a deadly urinary tract infection. Yes, throwing that plastic away hurts the environment, but in order to protect my body and health, I don't really have a choice. Recycling and manufacturing "green" medical supplies seems not to be an issue for environmentalists.

But it should be.

The best way environmentalists and plastic-free activists can help is to advocate for nondiscriminatory policies and the manufacturing of environmentally friendly products that are disability-friendly. This intersectional approach can address the systemic equities and inequality, including healthcare coverage, which determines the quality of health disabled (and nondisabled) people can receive; it's not just a matter of who is impacted by policies around plastics, but what other systems need to change that also impact choice. We all have to reimagine what a green world with disability justice at the center looks like, then create such a world.

At the end of the day, disabled people want the same kind of access as anybody else without having to constantly fight to have our humanity and needs recognized. That is true freedom.

In the meantime, we have our plastics.


This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Luticha Andre Doucette

Luticha Andre Doucette

Luticha Andre Doucette is a business owner, author, changemaker, fencer, and proud cat mom.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

New Filing Reveals Sinema Pads Campaign Coffers With More Pharma and Finance Funds

"This is what someone who's bought and paid for looks like."

Brett Wilkins ·


'We're Not Stopping': Weeklong D.C. Climate Protests End With 650+ Arrests, Vows to Fight On

"There is no other planet to escape to. Water is life... They need to listen to the youth. They need to hear us speak our cries."

Brett Wilkins ·



Ousted by AOC, Joe Crowley Now Lobbying Against Tax Hikes on Corporate Giants

The former chair of the House Democratic Caucus once called the GOP's 2017 tax law a "scam," but now he's collaborating with Wall Street to undermine attempts at progressive reform.

Kenny Stancil ·


'Corporate Fraud at Its Worst': J&J Hides Behind Bankruptcy Amid Baby Powder Lawsuits

"Here we go again," said Elizabeth Warren. "Another giant corporation is abusing our bankruptcy system."

Julia Conley ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo