Are Glass Straws the Answer to BPA Risks?

Glass drinking straws have become all the rage as health-conscious consumers seek to reduce their exposure to potentially cancer-causing plastic compounds in their food. But are they anything more than a fashionable gimmick?

From smoothie-slurping bloggers worrying that plastic straws will “leach trace amounts of toxic chemicals into food and into your body” to environmentally conscious sippers bent on “saving … sea creatures from ingesting little teeny tiny pieces of plastic,” it seems the glass straw will save our health and that of our planet.

Drawing my attention to this new phenomenon, a reader recently suggested that instead of drinking coffee through the plastic lids that coffee houses pop on paper cups, we should sip it through glass straws poked through said plastic lids. But does this really solve the problem of BPA and plastic food containers? Unfortunately, no.

For purely esthetic considerations, I’d be the first to favor glass straws: they’re beautiful, natural, reusable and therefore environment-friendly. Manufacturers even claim that they’re shatter-proof, though I wouldn’t want to test this promise on my kids (especially as they retail at a hefty $7 to $10 apiece!).

But as long as we continue drinking coffee, tea and other hot beverages from plastic-lined paper cups, glass straws won’t make much difference. You see, it’s the paper cup that’s the main culprit, not the plastic straw.

Paper cups intended for hot drinks are laminated with a liner made of polyethylene that helps keep beverages warm and prevents the paper from getting soggy and leaking. However, polyethylene has estrogenic properties much like BPA, and these so-called “xenoestrogens” (man-made chemicals that mimic the natural human hormones) are linked to a growing number of health problems, such as breast, ovarian, testicular, and prostate cancers, early puberty in girls, reduced sperm counts, altered functions of reproductive organs, obesity and behavioral problems.

A US government funded study published last year in the science journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that the vast majority of commercially available food-grade plastics such as polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, and polyethylene terephthalate, leach estrogen-like compounds into the foods and drinks they contain—even those that are marked as being “BPA-free.”

Making matters worse for the paper cup, it’s not environmentally friendly. Its plastic lining prevents the cup from being recycled, and so every paper cup that is manufactured and lined with plastic ends up in a landfill. There, the paper will decompose, releasing methane, a greenhouse gas with 23 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide, according to Sustainability is Sexy, a Seattle-based organization that seeks to “reduce the bitter environmental, social and financial impact of disposable coffee cups”.

So here’s my bold recommendation: just do away with paper cups and glass straws altogether. To enjoy a hot drink, all you need is an old-fashioned cup made from ceramic, china or glass and a few minutes to prepare and enjoy your drink.

When you look at Mediterranean food traditions (which I celebrate in Zest for Life), people in France, Italy and Spain drink coffee mostly as a treat and a gentle stimulant (one in the morning to get going, another after lunch to help stimulate digestion, and occasionally a third as an afternoon pick-me-up), not as a source of hydration.

They drink small quantities of strong coffee out of tiny espresso cups like the ones pictured above. Because these small coffees don’t take long to get through, most people sit at a table or stand a bar and enjoy their beverage without doing anything else (e.g. eating, driving, running for a train, shopping, etc.). For this reason, plastic lids aren’t necessary.

If you must carry coffee with you, I suggest you prepare it at home and fill it into a stainless-steel thermos where it will keep warm for hours and not spill if you have to run or drive. I do this when I take long road trips and it works beautifully: I get to drink my favorite brand of coffee from a non-reactive container at a fraction of the cost of a cup of coffee from a coffee shop and without needing to use cardboard, plastic or glass straws. It’s better for the environment too, as this generates no garbage except for a few (biodegradable) coffee grinds.