Paper straws 'may not be better for the environment than plastic'

Out of 20 brands of paper straws tested in study, 18 contained long-lasting and potentially toxic 'forever chemicals '

Straws made from plant-based materials such as paper and bamboo are often advertised as being more sustainable, but researchers are questioning the claims. Getty Images
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Paper drinking straws may not be better for the environment than plastic ones due to the presence of so-called “forever chemicals”, a study has found.

In the first such analysis in Europe, Belgian researchers discovered 18 out of 20 brands of paper straws contain long-lasting and potentially toxic chemicals that pose a risk to wildlife, the environment and people’s health.

The group of synthetic chemicals known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAs) were also found in straws made of bamboo, glass and plastic – but not stainless steel.

The chemicals were most common in those made from paper and bamboo, the study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Food Additives and Contaminants, found.

PFAs are man-made chemicals used to make products resistant to water, stains and grease.

They break down very slowly, causing them to build up in the body over time and remain in the environment for thousands of years, a property that has led to them being known as forever chemicals.

They have been linked to a host of health conditions, including cancer, asthma, raised cholesterol, high blood pressure and thyroid disease.

Thimo Groffen, an environmental scientist at the University of Antwerp, said the team of researchers wanted to find out if PFAs were in plant-based drinking straws sold in Belgium, after they were discovered in straws sold in the US.

The team bought 39 brands of drinking straw made from five materials – paper, bamboo, glass, stainless steel and plastic – mainly from shops, supermarkets and fast-food restaurants, before putting them through two rounds of testing for PFAs.

The majority of the brands – 27 out of 39, or 69 per cent – contained PFAs, with 18 different PFAS detected in total.

The paper straws were most likely to contain PFAs, with the chemicals detected in 90 per cent of the brands tested.

PFAS were also detected in four out of five brands of bamboo straw, three out of four of the plastic straw brands, and two out of five of the glass straws.

They were not detected in any of the five types of steel straw.

The presence of the chemicals in almost every brand of paper straw means it is likely it is, in some cases, being used as a water-repellent coating, the researchers said.

The study did not look at whether the PFAs would leach out of the straws into liquids.

The most commonly found PFAs, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), has been banned globally since 2020.

Also detected were trifluoroacetic acid (TFA) and trifluoromethanesulfonic acid (TFMS), “ultra-short chain” PFAS which are highly water soluble and so might leach out of straws into drinks, according to the report.

The researchers said the PFAs concentrations were low and, bearing in mind that most people tend to only use straws occasionally, posed a limited risk to human health.

PFAs are used to make everyday products, from outdoor clothing to non-stick pans, resistant to water, heat and stains.

Everyday items that can lead to 'forever chemicals' ending up in your body – in pictures

Dr Groffen said: “Small amounts of PFAs, while not harmful in themselves, can add to the chemical load already present in the body.

“We did not detect any PFAs in stainless steel straws, so I would advise consumers to use this type of straw – or just avoid using straws at all.

“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.”

Updated: August 25, 2023, 8:19 AM