Paper drinking straws, cups bring their own health, environment problems

“Eco-friendly” paper drinking straws, marketed as sustainable alternatives to plastic, have been found to contain persistent and potentially harmful chemicals, according to a recent study conducted by Belgian researchers.

This study, the first of its kind in Europe and only the second globally, investigated 39 brands of straws for the presence of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), synthetic chemicals used to impart water, heat, and stain resistance in products such as outdoor clothing and non-stick pans. The research, published in the peer-reviewed journal Food Additives and Contaminants, unveiled that PFAS were prevalent in the majority of the straws tested, particularly in those made from paper and bamboo materials.

PFAS, often termed “forever chemicals” due to their slow degradation, pose potential threats to both human health and the environment. They have been linked to health issues ranging from lower birth weight and thyroid disease to kidney and testicular cancer. Despite claims of eco-friendliness, the study reveals that plant-based straws, including those made from paper and bamboo, are not exempt from these chemicals. Dr. Thimo Groffen, an environmental scientist involved in the study from the University of Antwerp, emphasizes that the presence of PFAS challenges the perception of such straws as sustainable options.

With the global ban on single-use plastic products, including straws, gaining momentum, plant-based alternatives have gained popularity. However, this study’s findings highlight a concerning reality. Out of the five materials tested—paper, bamboo, glass, stainless steel, and plastic—PFAS were detected in the majority (27 out of 39) of the straw brands, most notably in paper straws (90% of brands) followed by bamboo (80%), plastic (75%), and glass (40%) straws. Notably, no PFAS were detected in steel straws.

The study underscores that while the concentrations of PFAS in the straws pose a limited risk to human health, the cumulative effect of such chemicals over time raises concerns. It remains uncertain whether the PFAS present in the straws are added intentionally for water resistance or result from contamination during the manufacturing process. The researchers suggest that the widespread presence of PFAS in paper straws implies their use as water-repellent coatings.

This study sheds light on the potential misperceptions regarding the sustainability of certain alternative products and points consumers towards more reliable choices. Dr. Groffen’s conclusion emphasizes the minimal risk posed by small amounts of PFAS in straws that are used infrequently, but he encourages the use of stainless steel straws as a safer option or even forgoing straws altogether.

In related news, replacing single use plastic cups with paper ones is also problematic, report researchers at the University of Gothenburg. They show that a paper cup that ends up in nature can also cause damage as they also contain toxic chemicals.

Reports of plastics pollution contaminating all parts of the Earth and in all living things has accelerated a shift to alternative materials. The coffee latte you take with you from the kiosk on the corner now comes in paper cups, sometimes even with paper lids. But that cup can also harm living organisms if it ends up in nature. Researchers at the University of Gothenburg show this in a study testing the effect of disposable cups made of different materials on the larvae of the butterfly mosquito.

“We left paper cups and plastic cups in wet sediment and water for a few weeks and followed how the leached chemicals affected the larvae. All of the mugs negatively affected the growth of mosquito larvae,” says Bethanie Carney Almroth, Professor of Environmental Science at the Department of Biology and Environmental Science at the University of Gothenburg.

A thin plastic film lines paper cups

Paper is neither fat nor water resistant, so paper that is used in food packaging material needs to be treated with a surface coating. This plastic protects the paper from the coffee in your hand. Nowadays, the plastic film is often made of polylactide, PLA, a type of bioplastic. Bioplastics are produced from renewable resources (PLA is commonly produced from corn, cassava or sugarcane) rather than fossil-fuels as is the case for 99% of plastics on the market today. PLA is often regarded as biodegradable, meaning that it can break down faster than oil-based plastics under the right conditions, but the researchers’ study shows that it can still be toxic.

“Bioplastics does not break down effectively when they end up in the environment, in water. There may be a risk that the plastic remains in nature and resulting microplastics can be ingested by animals and humans, just as other plastics do. Bioplastics contain at least as many chemicals as conventional plastic,” says Bethanie Carney Almroth.

Potential health hazard of food packaging

“Some chemicals in plastics are known to be toxic, others we lack knowledge about. Paper packaging also presents a potential health hazard compared to other materials, and it’s becoming more common. We are exposed to the plastics and the associated chemicals via contact with food.”

Bethanie Carney Almroth and her research colleagues report their results in a scientific article in Environmental Pollution. In the article, they reason about the major shifts that are required to mitigate the continuing damage to the environment and threat to our health caused by the plastics pollution crisis.

“When disposable products arrived on the market after the Second World War, large campaigns were conducted to teach people to throw the products away, it was unnatural to us! Now we need to shift back and move away from disposable life styles. It is better if you bring your own mug when buying take away coffee. Or by all means, take a few minutes, sit down and drink your coffee from a porcelain mug,” says Bethanie Carney Almroth.

Binding agreements to reduce plastic use

Right now, work is underway through the UN where the world’s countries are negotiating a binding agreement to end the spread of plastics in society and nature. Professor Carney Almroth is a member of a council of scientists, SCEPT – Scientists Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty, which contributes scientific evidence to the negotiations. The council calls for a rapid phasing out of unnecessary and problematic plastics, as well as vigilance to avoid replacing one bad product with another.

“We at SCEPT are calling for transparency requirements within the plastics industry that forces a clear reporting of what chemicals all products contain, much like in the pharmaceutical industry. But the main goal of our work is to minimize plastic production,” says Bethanie Carney Almroth.

Scientific article in Environmental Pollution: Single-use take-away cups of paper are as toxic to aquatic midge larvae as plastic cups – ScienceDirect

The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Want more? Sign up for our daily email.