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September 5, 2023

Support for Paper Straws is Going Soft

In places where traditional plastic straws are banned, you’ll often find your drink served up with a paper straw. It seems like a sustainable, albeit unpleasant, solution. But paper straws are more flawed than their poor, soggy performance.

In addition to the fact that manufacturing paper straws causes deforestation, eliminates natural habitats, and allows the release of more carbon into the atmosphere, this seemingly “natural” solution has been widely found to contain PFAS, or “forever chemicals.”

PFAS are per- and polyfluorinate substances, a group of chemicals used to make coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, n.d.). PFAS were first introduced in the 1940s and can be found today in food packaging, heat-resistant non-stick cooking surfaces, cleaning products, personal care items, fertilizer, clothing, furniture, and more. They are very durable, earning them their “forever” designation.

In 2021, after noting that paper straws were holding up better than anticipated, a team of researchers set out to test a mix of paper and PLA-based straws labeled as biodegradable. Essentially, they were looking to see if they contained PFAS.

Results showed that of the 38 straws tested, 36 (94.7%) contained PFAS chemicals. The study also found that the species of PFAS in the straws were not those approved for food-contact use, but rather those that are likely the result of manufacturing impurities or contamination (Timshina et al., 2021).

In 2023, researchers extended that initial research to 39 different brands of straws made from four materials (i.e. bamboo, glass, stainless steel, and plastic) in addition to paper. PFAS were found to be present in almost all types of straws, except for those made of stainless steel. PFAS were more frequently detected in plant-based materials, such as paper and bamboo. PFAS were detected in almost all paper-based straws, with highly variable concentrations between brands (Boisacq et al., 2023).

The presence of PFAS in these straws is alarming for several reasons.

If PFAS are present in these straws, they cannot be deemed biodegradable, as both research projects attest. Dr. John Bowden, a researcher involved in the first study, concluded, “PFAS are very persistent. They repel water. Those properties make it difficult for straws to break down. If PFAS are on it, I would not consider it biodegradable” (Timshina et al., 2021).  

Similarly, the more recent study states, “The presence of PFAS in plant-based straws shows that they are not necessarily biodegradable and that the use of such straws potentially contributes to human and environmental exposure of PFAS” (Boisacq et al., 2023).

In a follow-up experiment that evaluated the brand with the highest PFAS levels to detect leaching into water at various temperatures, approximately two-thirds of the total extractable PFAS leached at all temperatures (Timshina et al., 2021). So, not only would someone using the straw directly ingest the PFAS, but after it was disposed of, the PFAS would continue to leach from the straw.

There is considerable concern around the impact of PFAS on humans and wildlife. Studies suggest exposure to PFAS may lead to decreased fertility in women, developmental issues in children, interference with natural hormones, an increase in some cancers, and other serious health issues (United States Environmental Protection Agency, n.d.).

And even with the use of these “forever chemicals” to improve durability, paper straws disintegrate and have an off-putting texture and flavor. They are also choking hazards for young people and those with disabilities.

Ultimately, paper straws are not the sustainable solution they were thought to be. Bioplastic alternatives like Polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) are. Derived from the fermentation of canola oil, marine biodegradable (90% in 98 days), home and industrial compostable, and PFAS-free, it’s a solution that truly checks all the boxes.