Drawing Straws: VPIRG is Gambling Away Disabled VTers Independence

July 20, 2018

By David Flemming

Not content to merely “ask” Vermonters to go without single-use plastic straws, VPIRG is telling our legislators that they should pass a proposal to ban these straws altogether to keep them out of landfills in 2019. For some Vermonters, this ban would be environmental big-brother as usual, perhaps less intrusive than VPIRG’s success at banning cheap appliances that use too much energy. But for some of the 6% of Vermonters who already have difficulty caring for themselves, this ban would force them to decide between eating and drinking at home, or going without a drink at restaurants.

The straw seems like a simple thing. But it was not always so.

The son of a man who helped settle Ohio, Marvin Stone was sipping whiskey through a rye-straw one night in Washington DC during the 1880’s, but was put off by the grassy taste it left in his mouth. To remove this annoyance, “he wound paper around a pencil to make a thin tube, slid out the pencil from one end, and applied glue between the strips.” Stone commercialized his invention by funding machines to twist paper into a cylinder, which were then coated with a water-resistant paraffin wax. Little did he know, his invention would eventually lead to the creation of the single-use plastic straw, making the lives of millions of disabled individuals a little easier.

Take Jordan Carlson’s son, whose poor motor skills prevent him from drinking without a straw. While visiting a zoo, “we went to the snack bar and found out they had a ‘no straw’ policy.” (Doesn’t this sound similar to the pledge VPIRG has encouraged VT businesses to take)? She continues, “it was a hot day and he couldn’t drink.” The Carlsons were forced to leave the zoo early that day.

Carlson tries to remember to bring reusable straws from home with her, but “I’m human and sometimes I forget,” she explains. People with disabilities have to be much more conscious of what businesses and communities offer, Carlson says.

Certainly! While only about one in twenty Vermonters are disabled, Vermont should remain as inclusive as possible to our disabled neighbors.

The straw is a victory of capitalism for the disabled. As much as progressive folks like to discuss income inequality, the deepest gulf of inequality lies between the able-bodied individual and the disabled individual. This gulf has shrunk dramatically over the past century, due in large part to entrepreneurs discovering markets for their inventions that often become repurposed for those with disabilities. The straw is one of thousands of such inventions.

Stone, like many entrepreneurs, did not intend to improve the lives of disabled people worldwide. Nevertheless, their desire for wealth by keeping a fraction of sales from their inventions has made the lives of millions of the disabled more enjoyable. And the US has a proud history of capitalist inventors who have bridged the gap between the able-bodied and disabled.

Some of the more bold mobility-increasing inventions like Ford’s Model T were certainly not created with the disabled in mind. Regardless, the advent of affordable cars 100 years ago has made personalized care for the disabled and elderly far more easily accomplished today than if our past representatives had saddled us with a system of public transport that produced fewer CO2 emissions.

Ford did not invent the assembly line primarily out of the goodness of his heart. He saw an opportunity to enrich his own life, and enriched millions of people worldwide, because our institutions created the incentive for him to do so. Without Ford’s efforts, the disabled would put far more of a strain on our healthcare system. Stone’s straw may not be on par with Ford’s car, but we can still appreciate the contribution each have made to giving all us, most especially the disabled, the tools to improve our own lives.

We able-bodied people would be guilty of gross discrimination at eating establishments if we took away such an instrument to human dignity like the straw. The straw lends the most unfortunate of us a little more independence. Sure, we might create a little more trash than usual, but that’s small price to pay for human dignity, isn’t it?

VPIRG might protest: “we are only banning single-use plastic straws, we don’t want to ban paper straws!” But, disabled individuals generally take longer to eat and drink than the rest of us. Which means that paper straws tend to dissolve in water (imagine that!) and leave a bad taste in your mouth. Just think about what folks did before Mr. Stone’s inventions.

Not to mention, the children and the disabled may tear and swallow the much more fragile paper straws if parents aren’t careful. Safe straws are one thing parents and the disabled shouldn’t have to worry about a restaurant having on hand. Do we really want to jettison that safety standard just because it might keep a few straws out of landfills?

Even a bill allowing “straws upon request” might cause embarrassment for some disabled individuals. It could easily open restaurants to discrimination lawsuits if they get out of the rhythm of regularly ordering straws. I for one, would not want to explain to disabled customers why straws are out of stock.

At the moment, finding a way for all people with poor motor skills to drink out of a cup seems unattainable. While we wait for entrepreneurs to find a solution, we should let the disabled Vermont residents and visiting tourists have their straws without having to ask for one.

David Flemming is a policy analyst at the Ethan Allen Institute.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Hunter Melville July 21, 2018 at 11:10 am

More feel-good idiocy from VPIRG:



Steve Hearne July 21, 2018 at 11:47 am

My mother was stricken with MS and was bedridden for most of the time I knew her. She died when I was 14. The only way for her to take a drink was thru a straw.


Deanne July 21, 2018 at 1:33 pm

This is a tricky one for me. I am opposed to government coercion, but I am also concerned about the incredible waste in this culture, as well as the increasing trash that is accumulating and has to be put … somewhere. Most people in this country seem to be unaware that their trash doesn’t just disappear. It has to be stored somewhere.

I don’t like “disposable” items. People grab plastic spoons, forks, knives, and straws, and throw them away without a thought. Ever since I can remember, we have saved and reused our plastic ware (including straws) many, many times – usually until they break. My mom was a true frugal Vermonter.

I think it would be better to use five paper straws than to use one plastic straw. I could use the used paper straws to get my wood stove going.

In my opinion, this should be a personal decision, but since Americans are so removed from the reality of their actions, I think it is nearly hopeless for people here to ever realize the consequences of their actions. If they had to store their trash on their own property, as my grandparents did at a dump spot out back, there might be more awareness.

I don’t ever anticipate purchasing plastic ware ever again. I have a set of mismatched silverware I can take out with me, without feeling too badly if it should get lost or forgotten. I now have stainless steel straws. They don’t disintegrate like paper straws and aren’t trash like plastic straws. I take mine with me to work every day – in fact, whenever I go anywhere for any length of time, as I carry my own water with me everywhere, in glass jars.

Should the government mandate this? Well, I believe it is common sense, which is very lacking in our quick and easy culture, but I think it should be a personal choice. It should also be up to individual establishments as to what kind of straws they wish to provide, or whether they provide any at all. People who need straws should take them along as carefully as people take their purse, wallet, reading glasses, cane, or other items they need.


Jeanne V July 23, 2018 at 6:48 pm

I suggest places go back to stocking paper straws to give to those who ask for it in restaurants, etc. It would help those who need them without having the plastic to dispose of. It seems silly to be given a drink in a glass at a restaurant and a straw. I can see using a straw with a covered cup to take out. Then it can be paper instead of plastic. Simple. There will still be plastic straws, like with the insulated tumblers with covers, but not so many.


Anne M D'Olivo July 24, 2018 at 12:31 am

Speaking as a parent of a developmentally disabled daughter, I would suggest the author look to more important issues for those in need, such as independent housing. If he does some research and truly wishes to help those in need, he will find that there is very little available housing in Southern Vermont, and none whatsoever in the Northshire. If he truly wants to make a difference, perhaps he should write an article about this. My daughter needs a straw to drink, has relied on plastic straws for most of her life, but we are now using stainless steel straws and bring one with us, along with all the other things she needs, when she is out in public. That’s what parents of disabled children have to do. We advocate for our children and we do what is necessary.


William Hays July 25, 2018 at 3:09 pm

Does anyone make a fine brush that can clean “permanent” straws? I used glass straws, years ago, for my “Bosco”. Is there a sanitary way to lean them, for those of us that don’t own a dishwasher?


Deanne July 28, 2018 at 2:25 am

Hi William,
My stainless steel straws came with a brush for cleaning them, so although I can’t tell you where to purchase them, I know they do exist. I would check places that sell stainless steel or glass straws. (My stainless steel straws were a gift, so I don’t know where they were purchased.) Lehman’s, in Ohio, would be one place to check. Aha… https://www.lehmans.com/product/optional-cleaning-brushes-for-stainless-straws/


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