By Jackie Nuñez, Founder of the Last Plastic Straw and Plastic Pollution Coalition Advocacy & Engagement Manager
On National Drinking Straw Day, I’m calling for stronger policies to end plastic pollution in National Parks—and beyond.
Near the close of last year’s legislative session, a late night amendment in an appropriations bill was introduced by Rep. John Rose (R-TN) to block the order issued in June 2022 by Department of the Interior (DOI) Secretary Deb Haaland to phase out single-use plastic on public lands by 2032. Rep. Rose specifically called to exempt plastic straws from the phase-out, arguing that the “alternatives to plastics may not be more environmentally friendly” than plastic, citing a recent study detecting PFAS—a class of more than 15,000 synthetic chemicals—in paper straws. A discussion of the amendment is now upcoming in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
As Founder of The Last Plastic Straw, an organization committed to conveying the truths about single-use plastic plastic pollution, I must help put this misguided focus on plastic and paper straws to rest. Since 2011 I have advocated for straws upon request and banning the distribution of plastic straws and other single-use plastics, with exemptions made for those who truly need to use them.
Single-Use Plastics Do Not Belong In National Parks
The presence of PFAS in paper straws is concerning, but what’s more concerning is that this information is being used to defend the social license of plastic, which is far more toxic than paper straws. PFAS (known as “forever chemicals”) are a potent class of industrial chemicals that have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems, diminished immunity, metabolism disorders, and hormone disruption. They are commonly added to plastic items, and are sometimes used to coat items made of other materials to enhance their waterproof, nonstick, and other qualities.
There are more than 13,000 chemicals found in commonly used plastics, at least 3,200 of which are known to be hazardous to human health—including many kinds of PFAS. Plastic straws and all plastic items pose physical threats to plants, wildlife, people, and ecosystems, as well as chemical dangers caused by plastic’s chemical additives and release of toxic micro- and nano-plastic particles.
Many zoos, aquariums, and marine parks have long enforced policies prohibiting the sale and distribution of plastic straws to prevent harming the animals they house and their equipment. Yet, our public lands, which exist primarily for the conservation of nature, currently do not have the policies needed to stop single-use plastic from harming wildlife, plants and trees, and polluting our land, water, air, soils, and bodies. Our National Parks should not sell or distribute single-use plastics that end up polluting the very lands and waters the park system is supposed to protect.
The Reality of PFAS in Straws
So if we shouldn’t be using plastics in our parks, what is causing the confusion around plastic’s many alternatives, including paper straws? There are some important nuances to consider when assessing the presence of PFAS in paper and other plastic-alternative straws.
I turned to PFAS expert Graham Peaslee, Concurrent Professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry, University of Notre Dame, and Co-founder, Chief Technical Officer, UMP Analytical, an expert on PFAS, for more clarification on PFAS toxicity in straws. (Peaslee was not involved in the straw research cited by Rep. Rose.)
The concentrations seen in the paper straws…are too small to be the result of intentional addition of PFAS to the straw. The fact that there is such a wide variety of PFAS found in them helps support the idea that they come as contamination from many different sources—presumably as part of the recycled material used in the paper manufacturing process.— Graham Peaslee
Peaslee added that the study’s sensitive measurements show how widespread PFAS contamination is in recycled paper. However, he also noted that the concentrations of PFAS found in the paper straws analyzed was a low level that did not seem intentionally added. Nor did the results seem to present an immediate public or environmental health threat, especially compared to other sources of PFAS.
While conversations remain focused on plastic drinking straws, in reality it’s both the issues of plastic and single-use that is the problem. Rather than have an amendment to block the order to eliminate the sale and distribution of single-use plastic on public lands, the amendment should require that any alternative replacement to single-use plastics—whether single-use or reusable—must be at minimum, third- party certified as free of PFAS and other toxic chemicals. Ultimately, if you do not need to use a plastic straw, choosing no straw or a reusable straw is your best option.
Of course plastic-free, non-toxic, and endlessly reusable bamboo, glass, and stainless steel straws, cutlery, and foodware are always a better option than any single-use item, plastic or otherwise. Reducing wastefulness at the source is the core part of all solutions to plastic pollution. Adding specificity to U.S. policies regulating plastic and its alternatives to require third-party material certification would be a major step in helping to eliminate wasteful plastic pollution as well as toxic chemicals on a wider scale.
To end plastic pollution, we must significantly cut plastic production, and the U.S. can do that by implementing stronger policies that better help ensure the safety of plastic’s replacements, while prioritizing reuse over single-use. Instead of picking on paper straws in order to gut policies that could help end plastic pollution, policymakers should strive to establish effective, nontoxic reuse systems that allow us to waste less.