As the race to eliminate plastics from our Earth continues on, many alternatives have appeared throughout the years. Paper has become a viable option in replacement to plastic straws, plastic bags, plastic containers, and more. But now, researchers are saying that paper straws may not be as eco-friendly as we think or were made to believe. A study conducted by Belgian researchers found that the majority of the straws tested contained poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), or better known as “forever chemicals.”

PFAS are additives used to make everyday products such as non-stick pans, outdoor clothing, cleaning products, and are also used in industrial products such as fire-fighting foams. PFAS are difficult to break down and can burrow within the environment for years following, latching onto surrounding wildlife. They are also associated with severe health conditions such as liver damage, certain cancers, respiratory issues, thyroid disease, and others. Usually the advertisement of products that are made from paper or bamboo materials tend to underlie the message of sustainability, but in the case of containing PFAS, that is now not necessarily true.

The researchers tested 39 different brands of drinking straws made from materials of bamboo, paper, glass, stainless steel, and plastic. They were mainly collected from fast-food restaurants, supermarkets, and shops. After two rounds of testing, the majority at 69% were found to harness PFAS, with 18 different strains of PFAS detected. The most common PFAS found was perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), this chemical strain was globally banned in 2020. The derivative of the PFAS remains unclear, they could have been added during the production process, or could have been harnessed through the plant-based materials through soil contamination.

The strong presence of the PFAS within both the paper and bamboo straws show that these alternatives are not fully biodegradable. The physical piece may be, the lasting effects of chemical contamination will linger for years to come. Fortunately, the researchers did not find any PFAS in the tested stainless steel straws, so they are advising consumers to purchase those alternatives instead.