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Is the Case for Paper Straws Paper-Thin?
New research suggests paper drinking-straws may be more harmful than plastic ones.
Perhaps one of the most annoying products of the eco-friendly movement is the paper straw. I’ve never conducted a scientific poll on this, of course, but from personal experience and talking to many others, it’s clear people genuinely don’t like them, and much prefer traditional plastic straws. The paper variety not only seems to negatively impact the taste of beverages, but also tends to get soggy and kind of fall apart in your drink.
Yet, due to concerns related to pollution, biodegradability, and sea-life endangerment, pressures from environmentalists in recent years have compelled more and more restaurants to scrap plastic straws in favor of the paper ones.
So, has the trend been worth it? Are we saving the planet? According to a new study out of Belgium, the answer may well be… no.
It just so happens that those paper straws many of us have begrudgingly slurped through over the past few years contain “long-lasting and potentially toxic chemicals.”
Well that sucks. (Pun intended.)
Researchers tested 39 brands of straws for PFAS, a group of synthetic chemicals, and the results were rather interesting (emphasis from me):
PFAS were found in the majority of the straws tested and were most common in those made from paper and bamboo, found the study, published in Food Additives & Contaminants.
PFAS are used to make everyday products, from outdoor clothing to non-stick pans, resistant to water, heat and stains. However, they are potentially harmful to people, wildlife and the environment. They break down very slowly over time and can persist over thousands of years in the environment, a property that has led to them being known as "forever chemicals."
They have been associated with a number of health problems, including lower response to vaccines, lower birth weight, thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels, liver damage, kidney cancer and testicular cancer.
Dr. Thimo Groffen, an environmental scientist at the University of Antwerp who was part of the study, says, “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. However, the presence of PFAS in these straws means that's not necessarily true.”
The good news for beverage consumers is that the PFAS concentration levels in paper straws are low, and because most people use straws only on occasion (usually just when they’re dining out), the health risk to humans is quite small. But from a biodegradable perspective, it’s difficult to see how paper straws are any better than plastic straws… which of course begs the question: what’s the point of using paper straws in the first place?
I mean, if the only remaining argument is that it helps out sea turtles, which I’m certainly in favor of, why should a Coloradan like me share the burden of paper straws? The chances of anything going from my Rocky Mountain lips to the ocean are roughly zero. If the problem is regional, why not let the solution be regional too?
The best (or least suckiest) answer for people’s health and for the environment, according to Dr. Groffen, is to use stainless steel straws (which contain no PFAS) or no straws at all.
Okay, I guess. I don’t know about the rest of you, but stuff like this drives me environ-mental.
What’s your preference: plastic, paper, steel, or nada? Let me know in an email or in the comment section below.
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