We came across several posts on X circulating a claim that paper straws contain toxic “forever chemicals”. In addition, some posts also cite an article by the New York Post (NYP), a daily tabloid newspaper based in New York City, that reported that a new study has found that paper straws could be worse for the environment than plastic straws.
The fall of plastic straws
Plastic straws began to be phased out by large corporations like Starbucks in 2018 amidst concerns of pollution through single-use plastic such as straws. A viral video from 2015 of a team of graduate students removing a plastic straw that was stuck inside the nostril of a turtle seemed to have spurred this anti-plastic movement.
Singapore has also embarked on a similar movement beginning in 2019 where around 270 food and beverage outlets committed to phasing out plastic straws from 1 July 2019. The move is part of a World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) initiative called Plastic Action (Pact), supported by the National Environment Agency and Zero Waste SG – a non-governmental organisation focusing on the zero waste movement.
This shift away from plastic straws has encouraged a growing market for straws made of alternative materials such as paper, metal, and glass.
What are “forever chemicals”?
“Forever chemicals” refer to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are a group of chemicals used to make products that are designed to resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. PFAS can be found in a variety of products such as food packaging and non-stick cookware.
PFAS are termed “forever chemicals” because they are almost impossible to break down and last a long time in the environment. These chemicals could also make their way into food and water and eventually into the human body.
Due to the prevalence of PFAS in products as well as their ability to persist in the environment, research has been carried out on the effects of PFAS on human health. Studies suggest that exposure to certain PFAScould pose potential health risks such as interfering with the body’s natural hormones and decreasing fertility. However, further research on how the various levels of exposure to various PFAS could harm human health is still being carried out.
Do paper straws contain “forever chemicals”?
The NYP article, which was published on 25 August 2023, reported that paper straws may not be as environmentally friendly as they have been touted to be, in light of a new study by Belgian researchers which found that paper straws contain more PFAS than plastic straws.
In the study, which was published on 24 August 2023 in the Journal of Food Additives and Contaminants, scientists in Belgium tested 39 brands of straws available in the Belgian market for the presence of PFAS. They tested straws made up of 5 different materials – plastic, paper, bamboo, glass, and stainless steel.
According to their findings, paper straws were most likely to contain PFAS with 90% or 18 out of the 20 brands of paper straws that were tested containing PFAS. In comparison, 80% of bamboo straws, 75% of plastic straws, and 40% of glass straws were found to contain PFAS. There were no PFAS found in steel straws.
In addition, paper straws were also found to contain a higher concentration of PFAS on average than straws made of bamboo, plastic, and glass.
However, the study did not examine whether these PFAS would leach out of the straws into liquids. Additionally, the scientists also found that the PFAS concentrations in the straws were low and might only pose a limited risk to human health, especially to those who only use straws occasionally.
Other studies on paper straws
The Belgian study comes off the back of a 2021 study carried out in the United States (US). In light of the increasing bans against plastic straws and single-use plastic, researchers in the US intended to examine straws made of paper and other plant-based materials to determine if they are biodegradable.
The study found that out of 43 different brands of straws, there were more PFAS found in paper straws than in plastic straws. The researchers concluded that the presence of PFAS in paper straws meant that they were not fully biodegradable and therefore not a more environmentally friendly option compared to paper straws.
Therefore, based on current research, it does appear to be true that paper straws that are currently on the market contain more “forever chemicals” than plastic straws.
However, single-use plastics such as plastic straws are still a pressing environmental concern worldwide due to the amount of waste that accumulates in landfills as well as lakes, rivers, and oceans. The manufacturing process of single-use plastics also produces significant amounts of climate-warming greenhouse gas.
Therefore, researchers suggest the use of reusable straws such as stainless steel straws as a sustainable alternative to single-use straws as these contribute less to waste pollution and could be recycled. Alternatively, where possible, the best option would be to avoid using straws altogether.