Water, Water Everywhere, but Not a Straw to Drink: How the Americans with Disabilities Act Serves as a Limitation on Plastic Straw Bans

By Caverly, Isaac T. | Iowa Law Review, November 2019 | Go to article overview

Water, Water Everywhere, but Not a Straw to Drink: How the Americans with Disabilities Act Serves as a Limitation on Plastic Straw Bans


Caverly, Isaac T., Iowa Law Review


I. Introduction

What if you were told that a nine-year-old boy and a turtle could be the reason you might be fined for providing someone with a plastic straw? Now imagine, that you are an individual with a disability who requires these straws to be able to drink. This predicament is one that is taking the nation by storm and affecting more and more individuals living with disabilities every day. Individuals with disabilities are finding an increasing number of restaurants, cafes, and even entire cities where they have to bring their own plastic straw in order to be able to consume a beverage. This is something that able-bodied people do not even think twice about.

In response to a "study" finding a shockingly high number of straws used and a YouTube video featuring a turtle, private companies and local governments across the country are increasingly banning plastic straws.1 One potential barrier to this is the American with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). The ADA is designed to protect individuals with disabilities and ensure their access to American life.2 One of the primary ways the ADA achieves this is by requiring places to provide auxiliary aids. Auxiliary aids are items that help an individual be able to have access to and enjoy a good or service.

This Note argues that plastic straws should be considered auxiliary aids and all-encompassing distribution bans are incompatible with the ADA. This Note will describe how plastic straw bans initially came into public spotlight. Then, it will discuss the tension between the desire to protect the environment and the need of plastic straws by some in the disability community. Next, it explains how protecting the distribution of plastic straws is consistent with the intent, plain language, and caselaw of the ADA. Finally, this Note will provide a guide for how public and private actors can satiate their environmental ideals regarding plastic straws in an ADA compliant manner.

II. The Path to Plastic Straw Bans and the Concerns that Accompany Them

Plastic straw bans exist for a reason. The next five Sections of this Note break down what gave rise to the popular straw-ban movement. First, Section II.A discusses how plastic has become so ubiquitous in our daily lives. Second, Section II.B considers the impact plastic has had on our environment. Third, Section II.C examines the plastic straw movement and the circumstances that helped the movement gain broader attraction and appeal. Fourth, Section II.D reviews several of the actions taken against the usage of plastic straws. Fifth, Section II.E discusses the concerns raised by the disability community in response to these actions.

A. Plastic's Meteoric Ascensionto a Ubiquitous Item in Human Life

In most modern civilizations, it is impossible for an individual to go a single hour, let alone an entire day, without being exposed to plastic. However, this has not always been the case. Before plastic was invented in the late nineteenth century, many items such as combs, piano keys, and a variety of other trinkets were made from elephant ivory.3 In the mid-1800s, the elephant population became endangered, making the staple material for production of many items increasingly scarce and expensive.4 Therefore, companies sought a replacement for the now costly and less readily available ivory.5 John Hyatt, an amateur inventor took up the challenge and produced a new material made from cellulose in plants.6 Ironically enough, plastics were created as a response to both business needs and environmental protection concerns.7 However, the plastic revolution did not really accelerate until the early twentieth century when scientists discovered they could use petroleum and its gas byproducts as bases for creating plastics.8

Plastic has become even more ubiquitous in our daily lives as plastic production has increased twentyfold from the mid-twentieth century.9 As of 2014, more than "311 million [metric] ton[s]" of plastic was produced (i. …

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