Much like how paper straws emerged as an alternative to single-use plastic straws, paper cups might also pose environmental challenges. Research from the journal Environmental Pollution’s August edition revealed that numerous paper cups have a fine plastic lining. While this layer prevents the paper from soaking, it might release harmful compounds.
In this study, scientists from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, analyzed the effects of different disposable cups on butterfly mosquito larvae. Both paper and plastic cups were immersed in either temperate water or sediment and allowed to steep for up to a month. Subsequently, larvae were placed in tanks containing the water or sediment exposed to these cups.
Results indicated reduced growth in the larvae within the sediment, regardless of contamination source. Moreover, the larvae’s development seemed to be stunted upon exposure to the contaminated water from both cup varieties.
Given paper’s vulnerability to water and oils, any paper intended for food or drink packaging necessitates a protective top layer. This safeguard, often a bioplastic named polylactide (PLA), is created from renewable sources, contrasting the prevalent use of fossil fuels.
Derived from sources like corn, cassava, or sugarcane, PLA is perceived as biodegradable. However, this research suggests potential toxicity.
Certain chemicals in plastics are confirmed toxins, while the effects of others remain undetermined. The study team emphasized the increasing health risks as society pivots from plastics, leading to greater exposure to plastic’s harmful chemicals via food.
While they didn’t identify the exact toxins leaching from paper cups affecting the larvae, they believe it’s a blend of several substances.
Determining the environmental impact of refillable plastic cups is complex. It’s unclear whether they offer a more environmentally friendly solution concerning chemical leaching than single-use cups.
Some data suggests that to compensate for their greenhouse gas emissions, a reusable cup needs to be utilized between 20 and 100 times, factoring in the energy-intensive manufacturing and the hot water for cleaning. Yet, their extended lifespan might counterbalance the effects of disposable cups.
Presently, the United Nations is spearheading negotiations to curtail plastic proliferation.
Carney Almroth is part of the Scientists Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty (SCEPT), offering the latest scientific data to these talks. SCEPT advocates for the swift elimination of problematic plastics and urges caution to avoid substituting one detrimental product with another.