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In the Loop

The PFAS and the furious: the new and deserved scrutiny on the 'forever chemicals'

The water-repellent coating on many biodegradable products can cause harm in waste management and human health.

This article is adapted from GreenBiz's weekly newsletter, Circular Weekly, running Fridays. Subscribe here.

Recently, PFAS has received a growing amount of attention — and scrutiny — from everyone from environmental groups to the mainstream media, and its story continues to unfold. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a new PFAS bill that’s designed to manage this class of cancer-linked chemicals leaching into the water supply, which the White House subsequently announced that President Donald Trump likely would veto. 

Given its well-deserved time in the limelight, I thought it would be helpful to ground this conversation in context and explore some implications for circularity. 

PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — represents a class of about 5,000 chemicals that are most typically associated with repelling stains, oil, grease and moisture. Thanks to their highly effective repelling abilities, they are commonly found in non-stick cookware, stain-resistant carpets, water-repellent clothing, coatings and certain types of food packaging materials. 

Unfortunately, these same properties are what make PFAS highly persistent in the environment as they don’t break down readily in water, and are resistant to heat and grease, which has awarded them the nickname the "forever chemicals." Some, most notably PFOA and PFOS, can build up and remain in the human body for years, and have been linked to cancer, liver damage and immune suppression, according to the EPA. 

Public concern over fluorinated chemicals is nothing new. It has been growing steadily over the past 30 years, with a rapid uptick lately in response to recent studies that show their sweeping presence in numerous everyday products from food packaging to dental floss and their human health implications. 

Much of the public scrutiny of PFAS has centered on unsafe water, contaminated primarily through firefighting foam and industrial discharges. As you might have seen, the latter was the subject of "Dark Waters," the recent film starring Mark Ruffalo, which follows the true story of lawyer Rob Bilott’s fight against DuPont’s PFAS contamination in West Virginia. Spoiler alert: In 2017, Bilott won a $671 million settlement on behalf of more than 3,500 plaintiffs who had contracted cancer from chemicals DuPont allegedly knew may have been dangerous for decades, and allowed to contaminate their drinking water anyway. 

PFAS has significant — and less understood — implications on the waste industry as well. Given the presence of PFAS in some compostable and biodegradable packaging, composters and other organics recyclers are grappling with contamination in the compost they produce. Further, if food is grown in PFAS-contaminated compost, it’s not organic (and possibly harmful). The forever chemicals in compostable to-go plates, containers and cups add to the laundry list of other challenges at the intersection of packaging, food waste and foodservice including limited infrastructure, customer confusion and carbon footprint, to name a few. 

Of course, at the simplest level, a circular economy also requires a consideration of material health, rather than the un-scrutinized circulation of any old material. The concept of "safe and circular" is a key focus of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, and has been a key message of circular economy champion Bill McDonough for decades. 

Brands such as Coca-Cola, Clorox and Nestlé, along with the hundreds of other signatories to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, are actively working towards a comprehensive 2025 goal of circular packaging. One of the six pillars of this commitment includes a call for all plastic packaging to be "free of hazardous chemicals."

For both packaging and other materials, as companies seek PFAS alternatives, there’s also a danger of going from bad to worse with well-intentioned shifts in design, formulation or supply chains. While PFOA and PFOS have promisingly been largely phased out of use in the United States and Canada over the past 15 years, some substitute chemicals may have similar health concerns, leading to a game of hazardous chemical whack-a-mole.

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