Investigating whether recyclable plastic straws pose allergy risk

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[Go into history of what has caused the social movement against plastic straws]:
Straws made out of plastic, can be found washing up across the world’s coastlines. According to some researchers’ estimates, that number stands somewhere between 437 million and 8.3 billion. The number is high enough that some towns, countries and businesses are responding with bans on their use as a way to stop the problem from getting worse.

One estimate used by the National Park Service and then reiterated by various U.S. media outlets, such as the New York Times, USA Today, and National Geographic put the number of straws used in America at approximately 500 million a day. That number, however, has come under much scrutiny, and was found to not have any scientific backing in a 2018 report by USA Today.

So how much plastic is in the ocean? According to a published study in 2015 by Jenna Jambeck, a professor at the University of Georgia, nearly 9 million tons of plastic are ending up in the earth’s oceans and shores annually. Her estimations, based on data from 2010, put the total annual amount of plastic trash at 35 million tons, meaning close to a quarter of all plastic thrown away ends up in the ocean. (Chicago Tribune)

But, just how much of that plastic is from plastic straws? According to Jenna Jambeck’s study only 2,000 tons, out of the over 9 million tons of plastic waste in the ocean, comes from straws. That means that out of the total plastic pollution in the ocean, only 0.022% of that comes from plastic straws.

Public opinion has increasingly grown against their use. The District of Columbia became the first city in the United States to ban the use of plastic straws (among other non-compostable and non-recyclable products) at local food service businesses, in a law passed in 2014:

(c) By January 1, 2017, no food service business shall sell or provide food or beverages, for consumption on or off premises, in disposable food service ware unless the disposable food service ware is compostable or recyclable; provided, that this subsection shall not apply to prepackaged food or beverages that were filled and sealed outside of the District before a food service business received them.

Then in 2015, a video from Costa Rica, showing marine biologists pulling a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nostril, went viral. As public opinion mounted, several municipalities in the U.S. and nations in the EU have banned the use of plastic straws. And in kind, corporations such as Starbucks, McDonald’s and Marriott are now in the process of finding replacements for those markets (Starbucks has stated they intend to phase out all use of plastic straws by 2020).

The concern for those with corn allergens is that the replacements may hold risks of their own. The replacement is called Polylactic acid (commonly abbreviated PLA), and is another type of plastic. PLA is sold as better than petroleum based plastic and more recyclable though, because of its degradation in heat. What causes this increased degradability is the main material used in PLA products: corn. This information lead, Lise Broer, a food allergen blogger, and former contributor to Wikinews and Wikipedia, to question whether this new product was safe for consumption for those with corn allergies.

The problem is that there happens to be no scientific studies that have been accomplished to show that the use of a corn based product, regardless of the change of its original state. WikiTribune has thus far been unable to find any firm research on this topic of concern either.

When directly asked by WikiTribune’s Harry Ridgewell what the exact composition of their old and new straws were, Starbucks merely did not comment on the materials but instead responded with a forward-looking statement:

“Moving forward, straws at Starbucks will be converted to an alternative material, such as paper or compostable plastic, depending on the infrastructure available market-by-market.”

Starbucks did not reveal the contents of what they consider “compostable plastic”, but they did reveal that their new strawless lid will be “made from polypropylene”. Polypropylene is a recyclable plastic, but one that if not recycled actually presents a larger environmental impact if not properly disposed of than straws do, by weight and size alone. While Starbucks did not reveal the exact dimensions of the new lids, the implication of the difference is clear in their reply, stating that the new plastic lids are made from a “commonly-accepted recyclable plastic that can be captured in recycling infrastructure, unlike straws which are too small and lightweight to be captured in modern recycling equipment”.

WikiTribune’s also inquired to Starbucks specifically regarding the potential health risks of their new products: “You say corn-based plastics are safe from allergy issues. Can you please link me to your evidence for this? Also please consider this response in regards to the fact that the PLA straws are not heat resistant and are known to break down in higher temperatures, and that this increases the risk of a potential allergic reaction.”

However, Starbucks’ reply did not in any way address this concern. The corporation simply stated that, “Starbucks has a 30-year track record of focusing on sustainability across all aspects of its business.” Further noting, “As with any packaging we provide our customers, we will work to ensure our straw options meet our quality standards, including those who may experience an allergic reaction to alternative materials.” Starbucks however failed to provide any details of how they determine a straw meets their “quality standards”, nor what those standards are, nor who they rely on to determine their products are actually safe for public consumption. Beyond that, they simply pointed us to their “Newsroom“, which holds no scientific evidence to back up their claims regarding their use of PLA.

Marriott International published a press release on July 18, stating

“Marriott International announced that it has adopted a plan to remove disposable plastic straws and plastic stirrers from its more than 6,500 properties across 30 brands around the world. Once fully implemented in one year, the company could eliminate the use of more than 1 billion plastic straws per year and about a quarter billion stirrers. A single plastic straw – which might be used for about 15 minutes – will never fully decompose.

“We are proud to be among the first large U.S. companies to announce that we’re eliminating plastic straws in our properties worldwide,” said Arne Sorenson, President and Chief Executive Officer of Marriott International.

In February, more than 60 hotels in the United Kingdom eliminated plastic straws and began offering consumers alternate straws upon request.

Marriott however, like Starbucks, does not provide any information about the materials used in the alternate straws on their website.

[Reach out to Marriott, to find out the same information we needed from Starbucks.]

[ Find out names of production/distribution companies old straws, and if companies are changing suppliers to get PLA or if the suppliers are simply providing the different materials.]

[Go into what products Starbucks/Marriott have chosen for replacing their oil based plastic straws: Polylactic acid (PLA) straws (a form of corn based plastic), and adult sippy cup lids (find out what material these are made from, if plastic: ask Starbucks about potentially contradictory behavior about environmental safety…  if PLA based, the same health problems the article is covering continue to apply to those products as well.)]

[Go into what makes this choice unusual (which explains the focus on Starbucks): other companies migrated to paper straws, which are also more biodegradable than PLAs (go into those stats as well).]

[Ask Starbucks representatives why the company made the choice to go with a corn based plastic product instead of a paper based alternative as McDonald’s/A&W/IKEA have.]

[Ask McDonald’s why they choose to go with a paper based alternative while their rival went with PLA.]

[Go into what markets Starbucks is already using the PLA straws in, and compare that to which markets outlawed the plastic straws.]

[Pivot to potential health risks associated with PLA straws: people with corn allergies may be affected]

[How common are corn allergies? For those who have a corn allergy, what is the range of their reactions to exposure? Go into the fatality rates of corn based products (then the {if we can acquire one} fact that PLA is not tested for allergen content, versus the environmental impact of removing straws (which according to the Chicago Tribune “add up to only about 2,000 tons of the nearly 9 million tons of plastic waste that yearly hits the waters.” Is getting rid of such an empirically small environmental impact {when compared to overall numbers of pollutants}, worth the fatality risk posed by any product sold to consumers?]

[Mention how Starbucks claims that corn-based plastics are safe from allergy issues – regardless of that statement having no visible backing from peer reviewed science]

[Discuss Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), their role, and how they’ve received donations from Mylan Pharmaceuticals, the company responsible for the EpiPen which is a direct conflict of interest…as Mylan can make a profit from consumers not being aware of what foods contain allergens.]

[Go into the lack of research there has been done to find out if PLA has an allergic effect, or whether their compounds are sufficiently different from corn to prevent an allergic reaction]

[Talk about how the PLA straws are not heat resistant and are known to break down in higher temperatures,  (the pro being this is what makes them biodegradable, the con being that this increases the risk of a potential allergic reaction from drinking from a hot PLA straw)]

[Research other potential replacements than corn based PLA straws, which may not have as harmful effects… would be useful to have an allergen expert interviewed on this]

[Ask Starbucks if they have considered using straws produced from anything other than corn based PLA and if not, why not.]

[Look at straws made from Hemp as an alternative to corn.]

[Do people even want paper straws as an alternative? Are there any poll numbers on this?]

[the reason behind “this product is known to the state of California to cause cancer”

https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/general-info/cancer-warning-labels-based-on-californias-proposition-65.html – July 14, 2015 ]

Harry Ridgewell sent an email asking Starbucks these questions:

  1. How much plastic do your current straws use compared to your new lids?
  2. How much plastic do your cups use? Are they recyclable, and if so how much of them gets recycled?
  3. What kind of plastic are the current straws made out of and what kind of plastic are the new lids made out of?
  4. Are the current straws recyclable, and if so how much of them is recycled?
  5. Are the new plastic lids recyclable and if so how much of them is recycled?
  6. What are the new compostable PLA straws made out of, are they recyclable, and how much of them is recycled?
  7. What percentage of the population is allergic to the current straws you use? What percentage of the population is allergic to the new lids? What percentage of the population is allergic to your new compostable straws? What percentage of the population is allergic to your currently used cups?
  8. Why did you decide to replace your current straws with a corn based plastic product, instead of a paper based one?
  9. You say corn-based plastics are safe from allergy issues. Can you please link me to your evidence for this? Also please consider this response in regards to the fact that the PLA straws are not heat resistant and are known to break down in higher temperatures, and that this increases the risk of a potential allergic reaction.

This was the response I got:

“Starbucks has a 30-year track record of focusing on sustainability across all aspects of its business. The strawless lid is made from polypropylene, a commonly-accepted recyclable plastic that can be captured in recycling infrastructure, unlike straws which are too small and lightweight to be captured in modern recycling equipment. Further, our cups contain 10% post-consumer fiber, introduced in 2006, and a number the company expects to double by 2022.

Moving forward, straws at Starbucks will be converted to an alternative material, such as paper or compostable plastic, depending on the infrastructure available market-by-market. As with any packaging we provide our customers, we will work to ensure our straw options meet our quality standards, including those who may experience an allergic reaction to alternative materials.

You can learn more about Starbucks plan to eliminate plastic straws in our Newsroom.”

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