Paper and bamboo straws may not be as “eco-friendly” as they seem, according to a Belgian study.
Recent research revealed that a number of so-called “eco-friendly” straws contain PFAS — or “forever” chemicals. Not only are these substances harmful to the environment, but they also are believed to pose a risk to human health.
Researchers examined straws across thirty-nine brands and five materials — paper, bamboo, glass, stainless steel, and plastic.
Extensive testing revealed that PFAS was present in straws of all materials except for stainless steel. PFAS was found more frequently, however, in straws made of plant-based materials.
Based on the presence of PFAS in these otherwise “eco-friendly” straws, researchers concluded that these products are not always completely biodegradable — as they are commonly advertised to be — and may be contributing to human and environmental PFAS exposure.
It has been recognized for quite some time now that when food products are stored in packaging containing PFAS, the chemicals migrate into the food thus “increasing human dietary exposure.”
Similarly, it is believed that by drinking through straws containing these chemicals “humans may ingest a so far undetermined amount of PFAS.”
The Belgian study found that PFAS was present in nearly all of the paper straws that were tested, as well as in four out of the five bamboo straws they examined.
PFAS was detected in only two of the glass straws and in none of the stainless steel straws.
As with the bamboo straws, three out of the four plastic straws tested also were found to contain PFAS.
According to the study, it is unclear how much of the PFAS detected in these products is a deliberate addition and how much can be considered “background contamination.”
“Plant-based straws marketed as eco-friendly alternatives are as such not necessarily more sustainable for the planet than plastics, because they may contribute to the current prominent PFAS pollution issues,” the report stated. “Plant-based FCMs, particularly those made of paper, are supposed to be recyclable products, but will most likely end up in landfills or be incinerated, releasing PFAS further into the environment.”
The researchers concluded that — based on the results of their tests — reusable stainless steel straws are the most “sustainable alternative” to traditional single-use plastics.
Beginning on January 1, 2021, the City of Portland banned the “distribution” of plastic straws and other single-use plastic items. The official City of Portland website lists several alternative materials permissible under the ordinance, including bamboo and paper.
In light of the fact that the city’s ban on plastic straws is purportedly designed to “encourage sustainable practices” and “promote the health of our waterways and Casco Bay,” the recent revelations regarding the likelihood of PFAS contamination appears to put the City’s recommendation of certain alternatives at odds with these goals.
Earlier this summer, the Town of York considered adopting one of the nation’s most restrictive bans on single-use plastic products, including drinking straws.
Although the use of alternative materials for disposable products has not been discussed with relation to the proposed ban, it is likely that the sale and use of utensils, including straws, made from plant-based materials would rise in the area — a troubling possibility given these new insights regarding the likelihood of PFAS contamination.
The implications of this study for the future of sustainability efforts — and the environmentalists’ fight to eliminate single-use plastics in particular — remains uncertain at this time.