Paper cups as toxic as plastic cups

Paper cups have taken over the market from plastic cups. But paper cups can also be toxic to biological life, according to a new study from the University of Gothenburg.
Paper cups have taken over the market from plastic cups. But paper cups can also be toxic to biological life, according to a new study from the University of Gothenburg.Photo - Olof Lönnehed via University of Gothenburg

Replacing the disposable plastic cup with a paper one is not without problems. Researchers at the University of Gothenburg show that a discarded paper cup can do just as much harm in nature because it also contains toxic chemicals.

All the reports that plastics are now everywhere on our planet and in all living things have accelerated a shift to alternative materials from the packaging industry. The coffee latte you bring with you from the kiosk on the corner comes in paper cups, sometimes even with the lid in paper. But the paper cup can also do great harm to living organisms if it ends up in nature. This is the opinion of researchers at the University of Gothenburg who have tested the impact of disposable cups made of different materials on the larvae of the butterfly mosquito.

"We left paper cups and plastic cups in wet soil and water for a few weeks and followed how the leached chemicals affected the larvae. All the midges had a negative impact on the growth of mosquito larvae that stayed in the water and soil," says Bethanie Carney Almroth, professor of environmental science at the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Gothenburg.

Thin plastic film keeps the mug tight

One weakness of paper as a food packaging material is that it does not tolerate liquid or grease very well. So that you don't get the coffee in your hand when holding a paper cup, the inside is coated with a thin plastic film. Nowadays, the plastic film is often made of polylactide, PLA. It is a plastic that is made with sugar cane, corn or cassava as a base and is therefore fossil-free, which can be counted as an advantage. PLA is a so-called bioplastic that can decompose faster than oil-based plastic under the right conditions, but the researchers' study shows that it can still be toxic.

"Bioplastics do not break down efficiently enough when they end up in water, there may be a risk that the plastic remains in nature and may be absorbed into the tissue of animals and humans, just as other plastics do. Bioplastics contain at least as many chemicals as conventional plastics," says Bethanie Carney Almroth.

Potential health hazard in food packaging

"We know that some chemicals in bioplastics are toxic, others we lack knowledge about. It is also a potential health hazard as paper packaging with plastic film for food is becoming more common. We are exposed to plastic through food that can introduce toxins into our bodies.

Bethanie Carney Almroth and her research colleagues present their results in a scientific article in Environmental Pollution. In the article, they discuss the major shift required of us to avoid that plastic continues to harm the environment and threaten our health.

"When the disposable products came after the Second World War, there were major campaigns to teach people to throw away the products, it was unusual! Now we need to shift back and get away from single-use use. It is better to bring your own mug when buying the take away coffee. Or by all means, sit down and drink your coffee on site from a porcelain mug, says Bethanie Carney Almroth.

Binding agreements to reduce plastic use

Right now, work is underway through the UN where the countries of the world are negotiating a binding agreement that will stop the spread of plastic in nature. Professor Carney Almroth is a member of a council of scientists, SCEPT – Scientists Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty, which contributes scientific evidence to the negotiations. The Council calls for the rapid phasing out of unnecessary and problematic plastics, as well as vigilance to avoid replacing one bad product with another.

"We at SCEPT also want to introduce transparency in the plastics industry that forces a clear list of ingredients of what all products contain for chemicals, much like in the pharmaceutical industry. But the main goal is to minimize plastic production, says Bethanie Carney Almroth.

Source - University of Gothenburg

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