Major PFOA manufacturers have agreed to eliminate the chemical by 2015, and a company in Maine has already developed an alternative to PFOA, recently releasing it for packaging makers to test.
Materials developer Cerealus has spent about a year and a half on its PFOA replacement, Holdout, a coating additive based on corn protein, a byproduct typically used as animal feed.
Holdout's purpose is to make paper and paperboard that comes in contact with food resistant to grease and oil, and it's aimed at current users of PFOA, including fast food wrappers, cookie bags, deli paper, freezer paper, microwave popcorn bags, pet food bags, fast food containers, donut boxes and pizza boxes.
And since the material is going to be in contact with food, it also needs to meet federal standards. "One of the issues in finding an alternative is it has to be approved by the FDA," said Cerealus founder, CEO and chemist Tony Jabar. Cerealus developed Holdout using materials previously approved by the FDA for food contact, cutting out the need for further testing.
Cerealus is now bringing Holdout to the market, supplying it to food packaging makers to test out. The company has decided to take its product first to packaging providers, who will supply it to the end users, mostly national food chains. Cerealus hopes that will then create more demand that will flow back up to the packaging suppliers and ultimately to paper mills.
"Once the national chains realize that there is an alternative out there, a viable alternative, then I think it will turn around," Jabar said. "I think the national chains will drive down to the paper mills through the converters, 'We don't want to use PFOA anymore. We want to use an alternative.'"
Cost was also a factor in Cerealus' decision to go straight to the packaging suppliers. By doing it that way, Cerealus only had to make a ton of the material. If they had went through a paper mill first, they would have had to make at least 20 tons of it to start off with.
But cost should not be an issue to the final user of the product. "The good news is we can position it and price it so we are competitive. The net cost to make this (Holdout) is the same (as PFOA coating)," Jabar said. "It's not going to increase the cost of making the sandwich wrappers or pizza boxes."
In 2005, the EPA labeled PFOA a likely carcinogen. The chemical is persistent in the environment and human bodies, and has been detected at low levels in most people's blood. In one test of 300 babies, 99 percent had PFOA in their umbilical cords. PFOA is not only used in making grease-resistant food wrappings, but also in hundreds of other applications to make products that repel water, stains, oil and grease or repel fire.
Companies are eventually going to have to find permanent alternatives to PFOA because under the 2010/15 PFOA Stewardship Program, developed by the EPA and eight major PFOA makers, PFOA will be eliminated from food packaging and other applications by 2015. California had already tried banning its use by 2010, by the bill passed by the California Assembly in 2008 ended up being vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The EPA's current stance on PFOA is that routine use of consumer products that include PFOA is not a health concern; in laboratory animals tests, exposure to PFOA has caused developmental effects and death. While the EPA does not recommend consumers taking action to avoid contact with PFOA, the non-profit Environmental Working Group does.
Cerealus developed Holdout with seed grant support from the Maine Technology Institute, and has been working with the University of Maine Process Development Center on a number of other sustainable alternatives to products, including agricultural mulch film that can be plowed into the earth and biodegrade instead of being thrown away or incinerated, and non-volatile organic compound binders for paint and adhesives.
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