What's so bad about bamboo

Pollutants in bamboo dishes - warnings for misleading advertising

Most suppliers of bamboo tableware advertise renewable raw materials, recyclability and naturalness. They offer their products as an alternative to plastic or as "100% bamboo". However, they often keep silent about the fact that, in addition to bamboo, it also contains plastics such as melamine resin or urea-formaldehyde resins. This bamboo tableware has a matt surface, the wood grain cannot be seen.

The plastic melamine resin has the disadvantage that it releases its components formaldehyde and melamine to food under certain conditions such as heat or the action of acids.

Anyone who searches the official German and European warning messages for "bamboo" or "melamine" regularly finds complaints about dishes that exceed the limit values ​​for formaldehyde and sometimes also melamine. The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) does not give bamboo cups a good rating either.

Ban demanded for bamboo cups with plastic

Stiftung Warentest tested 12 bamboo cups in July 2019. 7 of them were rated "unsatisfactory" because they emitted inadmissible amounts of pollutants when they were filled with hot liquids. They represent a high security risk and, in our opinion, should not even go on sale. The federal government must therefore issue a ban on these products, demands the Federation of German Consumer Organizations (vzbv).

The Senate Department for Consumer Protection in Berlin announced that a total of 37 bamboo tableware samples were examined in 2018 and 2019. All of them exceeded the formaldehyde limit and one also exceeded the limit for melamine.

As early as 2017, the Chemical and Veterinary Investigation Office (CVUA) Stuttgart published the results of three years of laboratory work with 45 products that were advertised as bamboo dishes. 35 of them were not just made of bamboo. And the results were also alarming:

  • 11 items gave significant amounts Melamine and / or formaldehyde to the test food. The legal maximum levels for these two substances were in some cases significantly exceeded. Formaldehyde gas is as "probably carcinogenic in humans ". Melamine, the starting material for the production of melamine resins, can form crystals with another substance, which can lead to kidney damage.
  • When the dishes are off Urea-formaldehyde resins passed, supplied the hot test solution visible material changes, even cracks in a mug.
  • The advertising was only not misleading for 4 items and the dishes also met the maximum levels of pollutant emissions. Nevertheless, the samples did not meet the legal requirements because the Declaration of conformity for food contact materials made of plastic was faulty or the Labelling not enough.
  • All 35 examined bamboo tableware or coffee-to-go cups would have been like this not be sold allowed to.

More recent studies from Stuttgart show that the release of formaldehyde and melamine from most of the bamboo cups tested increases over time, i.e. after repeated testing.

A warning was given to the supplier of bamboo dishes

The Federation of German Consumer Organizations has warned a dozen online shops for misleading advertisements for cups and other tableware made of bamboo. The products were advertised as particularly environmentally friendly with statements such as "100% biodegradable" or "compostable". However, the synthetic resins contained cannot be broken down in the compost. Ten of the cautioned companies have issued a cease and desist declaration. Amazon was sentenced by the District Court of Munich I to refrain from misleading advertising.

"Compulsory demonstration" and clear labeling

From the point of view of the consumer advice centers, food monitoring must be improved. For example, the vzbv demands the "obligation to demonstrate" bamboo articles with plastic components if they are to be used for food. This would mean that importers and manufacturers of such items would have to prove that they are safe before they can be sold.

Something has to change when it comes to statements about recyclability and compostability. Stiftung Warentest rated 5 out of 12 cups tested as "unsatisfactory" because they misleadingly advertised the manufacturers as an environmentally friendly alternative to disposable cups. In fact, the cups cannot be recycled because they are stuck with plastic and therefore cannot be disposed of in an environmentally friendly way. In our opinion, manufacturers should be obliged to state the materials used on the product so that it is clear what tableware is made of.

Pure bamboo dishes and alternatives

Due to its fiber structure and wooden appearance, bamboo wood is easy to distinguish from the so-called bamboo resin mixtures, which look like plastic. There is no danger from pure, untreated bamboo, for example as a cutting board or bamboo straw.

Reusable cups for coffee to go and other hot drinks on the go are also made from other materials. Thermo cups, for example made of stainless steel, also have the advantage that they also keep the drink warm. Stainless steel, glass and porcelain are recommended for contact with food and hot drinks, but also low-pollutant plastics.

Tip from consumer advice centers

Plastic is not generally bad for the environment or human health, provided it is

  1. is used for a long time and
  2. does not release any harmful substances into the food. So far, polypropylene (PP) has not been noticed in tests due to the release of harmful substances.

Also, pay attention to information about safe use, such as heat resistance. As a precaution, packaging such as ice cream or margarine cans that are only intended for single use should not be used multiple times. Only buy reusable tableware for which the manufacturer specifies the type of all materials used.

This content was created by the joint editorial team in cooperation with the North Rhine-Westphalia consumer center and our federal association (vzbv) for the network of consumer centers in Germany.