Paper straws and other eco-friendly versions of the utensil might not actually be as good for the environment as they’re touted to be after a new study found they contain long-lasting and potentially toxic chemical components.
A team of scientists from Belgium tested 39 brands of straws to see if they contained per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of synthetic chemical compounds.
The results of the study were published in the peer-reviewed journal Food Additives and Contaminants on August 24.
PFAS “barely break down” and are known as “forever chemicals,” stated a release summarizing the study.
PFAS also have “unique water-repellent and fire-resistant properties,” noted the study.
These properties are toxic to humans, animals, and the environment. The chemicals are used to make everyday household products, ranging from non-stick pans to clothing resistant to water, heat, and stains.
The most common ways PFAS are consumed by humans are by food and water intake. There are many food packaging materials that also contain the chemical compounds.
Various types of straws tested
The researchers collected the “widest possible range” of straws on the Belgian market. The straws were made of different materials and came from various stores and distributors.
In total, 20 paper straws, five glass straws, five bamboo straws, five stainless steel straws, and four plastic straws were used to analyze 29 various PFAS.
The researchers hypothesized that paper straws were more likely to contain PFAS than any other straws because they’ve been manufactured to be water-repellent.
They also predicted there would be little-to-no PFAS in stainless steel or glass straws.
As for plastic straws, the researchers said it would be hard to predict the presence of PFAS because of how many plastics and additives are used to make them.
The research team also assumed that there would be differences in PFAS concentration based on the straws’ country or content of origin because of different regulations.
The majority of the brands (69%) contained PFAS, with 18 different types of the chemical found in total.
The research team found that PFAS were detected in almost all paper-based straws (90%) “with highly variable concentrations between brands.”
PFAS were also found in four out of five bamboo straw brands, two glass straw brands, and three plastic straw brands.
Researchers stated that three out of four plastic straw brands contained “quantifiable” PFAS concentrations.
The chemical component found the most common PFAS found was Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which has been prohibited through regulations in many countries, including Canada.
“Ultra-short chain” PFAS, such as trifluoroacetic acid (TFA) and trifluoromethanesulfonic acid (TFMS), were also detected. These highly water-soluble chemicals could seep from the straws into the drinks.
The chemicals were not found in any of the stainless steel straws tested.
What’s the risk?
Researchers noted that PFAS was expected in the plant-based straws as the chemicals are “used to confer stain and water repellency to FCMs [Food Contact Materials].”
They added that the PFAS concentrations were low, and since most people only use paper straws occasionally, there’s a limited risk to human health.
The study also highlighted that commercially available plant-based straws on the Belgian market contained higher concentrations of PFAS than those on the US market.
The team concluded that the “eco-friendly” plant-based straws were not a more sustainable alternative to plastic straws because they’re an additional source of PFAS that are exposed to humans and the environment (when thrown away into landfills or incinerated).
However, it’s important to note that it isn’t known if the PFAS were added to the straws by manufacturers or were present due to contamination.
Soil could be a source of contamination for straws made out of organic material, noted the study, as well as the water used in the manufacturing process.
Stainless steel straws were found to be the most sustainable choice because they can be reused and recycled and don’t contain PFAS.
“Straws made from plant-based materials, such as paper and bamboo, are often advertised as being more sustainable and eco-friendly than those made from plastic,” said researcher Dr Thimo Groffen, an environmental scientist at the University of Antwerp, who participated in the study.
“However, the presence of PFAS in these straws means that’s not necessarily true.”
The team added that more research around the presence of PFAS in food contact materials is needed to better understand the human risks they pose.
Saying goodbye to plastic straws in Canada
A single-use plastics ban has been in effect in Canada since December 2022. The regulations are being implemented in phased approaches.
The ban includes checkout bags, cutlery, food service ware made from or containing problematic plastics that are hard to recycle, and plastic straws.
According to a previous statement from Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), this “world-leading ban on harmful single-use plastics will result in the estimated elimination of over 1.3 million tonnes of hard-to-recycle plastic waste and more than 22,000 tonnes of plastic pollution, which is equivalent to over one million full garbage bags.”
The sale of flexible straws packaged with beverage containers (i.e., juice boxes) will be prohibited in June 2024. Then, by the end of 2025, Canada will ban all six categories of single-use plastics for export.
Are you anti-paper straw? Let us know in the comments.
With files from Daily Hive National Trending Staff