At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, many cafes took the initial precautionary step of no longer serving drinks in reusable glassware. With little known about how the virus could be transmitted, particularly whether or not it could survive on surfaces, for the sake of consumer health coffee shops decided to take the less eco-friendly route and serve all beverages in to-go cups.
But a new study finds a potential health risk associated with drinking hot liquid from to-go cups: microplastics. Set to be published in the upcoming edition of the Journal of Hazardous Materials, researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur found that in just 15 minutes, paper to-go cups can release 25,000 potentially harmful micron-sized plastic particles into a hot beverage.
As reported by Study Finds, microplastics are completely invisible to the naked eye and “can be as small as one-fiftieth the width of a human hair.” Previous studies have found microplastics leading to inflammation in animals and could potentially lead to cancer and infertility. For the study, researchers heated “ulta-pure” water to 85-90°C (185-195°F) before pouring it into paper cups and letting it sit for 15 minutes. Examining the water under a fluorescent microscope, researchers found “approximately 10.2 billion submicron sized particles” leached from the plastic cup. The analysis also found the presence of heavy metals—iron, chromium, and cadmium in particular—in the cup’s plastic lining.
The need for the coffee industry to move away from single-use cups remains a moral imperative for many shops. With an estimated 264 billion paper cups being produced last year alone—most of which find their ways to a landfill as opposed to a recycle or compost bin—cafes have years been looking for creative ways to increase their reliance on reusable cups. COVID-19 slowed down much of that momentum, but we here at Sprudge want to help lead the push for resuables in 2021. And with the newfound potential health risk associated with one-time use cups, perhaps there will be a reinvigorated push to say goodbye once and for all to the paper cup.