A Health Reason to Ditch Single-Use Cups

By Jim Clugger


Littorary - cross sectioned single use cup with colorful microplastic particles floating in the coffee


While awareness is increasing around the harm that single-use cups can wreak on the environment, a new study reveals that disposable plastic products could also present hazards to human health.

The study published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials by a group of researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) describes how hot water triggers the release of microplastics that mix with the beverage contained within the cup, ultimately getting consumed along with the beverage.  A small cup of coffee or tea can contain 25,000 plastic microparticles, according to the study.

Human ingestion of microplastics is a burgeoning field of research, an unfortunate but direct result of the ubiquity of plastics in daily life, particularly as it relates to food and beverage consumption. Research shows that babies ingest microplastics from baby bottles, that they are found in bottled water, and that they have entered the human food supply through seafood. Add single-use cups to the known pathways of plastic microparticle ingestion. These products increase human exposure to microplastics for coffee and tea drinkers when using a takeaway cup.

The human health effects of microplastic ingestion on a large scale are still poorly understood, as it is somewhat easier to identify and count microplastics at this point than to determine related health effects.

Nevertheless, there is plenty of reason for concern.

Chemicals found in microplastics include bisphenols, phthalates, heavy metals, and flame retardants. These chemicals have been linked to early death, cancer, reproductive problems, neurodevelopmental conditions, and asthma.

Part of the difficulty in determining the health impacts is the large variety of microplastics in terms of size and chemical composition. The size of microplastics influences how the small particles interact with soft tissue. Smaller particles are more likely to pass through the gastro-intestinal walls and reach other parts of the body like the blood stream, vital organs, and even the placenta of pregnant women.

Coffee and tea drinkers can reduce their exposure to microplastics by taking some simple precautions. According to Consumer Reports, people desiring to reduce exposure to microplastics should:

  1. Avoid plastic containers for hot drinks,
  2. Avoid washing plastic containers in the dishwasher, which can degrade plastics,
  3. Avoid plastics with known issues like polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene, acrylic, nylon, polycarbonate and polylactic acid, and
  4. Opt for products packaged in glass instead of plastic.

Not only is glass superior to plastic but it is also preferred over paper products because those paper products often have plastic components capable of degrading when exposed to hot beverages.

Paper takeaway cups are lined with a hydrophobic plastic coating to prevent the paper from absorbing water and becoming soggy. The plastic lining is typically polyethylene while some other liners are made from copolymers.

The IIT researchers showed that such plastic-lined paper cups can be stimulated to release potentially hazardous microplastics by simply filling them with hot water for 15 min. Worse, the paper cups studied also contained toxic heavy metals in the plastic liners, which were also released into the water as the plastic lining degraded and flaked off.

“These microplastics can act as carriers for contaminants like ions, toxic heavy metals such as Palladium, Chromium, and Cadmium, and organic compounds that are similarly hydrophobic in nature thus allowing them to conveniently cross over to the animal kingdom. When ingested, the health implications could be serious,” according to Sudha Goel, Associate Professor at IIT Kharagpur, who led the research.

Studies like the IIT research are needed to expose potentially hazardous consumer products. Hazardous products are created when product designers focus on characteristics other than human health like cost, weight, or manufacturability. Regrettable product design and manufacturing are all too common in the fast paced and loosely regulated plastics industry leaving long term environmental and health impacts understudied.

Virendra K Tewari, Director, IIT Kharagpur lamented this situation in a recent statement, “This study shows that careful consideration needs to be done before the promotion of replacements for bio-hazardous products and environmental pollutants. We have been quick to replace plastic cups and glasses with disposable paper cups”.

We here at Littorary agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Tewari, which is why we always keep human health and the environment front of mind in our product design.

Our team is committed to making healthy and sophisticated products that rival the convenience of plastics without the environmental burden. We believe technology and design innovations can revolutionize how Americans and the world consume products in a more environmentally responsible manner. Please stay tuned to our website, blog, and upcoming Kickstarter page as we unveil a product fully capable of providing the experience and sustainability that will consign the concept of disposable plastics to the garbage heap of history.

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