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A Year in Review of Industry and Government Action on PFAS

The past year has been busy in the space of action around polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)—from the proposal or adoption of federal and state policies, down to individual companies’ moves away from reliance on these toxic chemicals. Here's a review of what’s been happening this 12 months or so around PFAS in both the private and public sectors.

Arlene Karidis

April 4, 2022

6 Min Read
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Samuel Corum/Getty Images

The past year has been busy in the space of action around polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)—from the proposal or adoption of federal and state policies, down to individual companies’ moves away from reliance on these toxic chemicals.

More players from different sectors are closing the door on these widely used compounds with grease-, water-, and or dirt-resistant properties but known to pose multiple health risks. They have been found in drinking water, food, and blood. And they have caused problems for waste and  recycling facilities, as they are the last stop for PFAS-laden waste, where  operators have limited economic means to deal with it, and no way to totally eliminate these “forever chemicals.”

Here's a review of what’s been happening this 12 months or so around PFAS in both the private and public sectors.

State and Federal Action

Washington, New York, and Maine lead the way on the state regulatory front, prohibiting PFAS in packaging by December 2022.

And the latest: Vermont signed into law a bill to stop the sale of a laundry list of PFAS-containing products, including firefighting foam, food packaging, ski wax, carpets, and stain-resistant treatments.

“[Vermont’s] new law demonstrates that people and communities understand the dangers of these forever chemicals and want common-sense laws to protect them,” Liz Hitchcock, director of nonprofit Safer Chemicals Healthy Families said, as reported in the Hill.

At the federal level, the PFAS Action Act introduced by Michigan Reps. Debbie Dingell (D) and Fred Upton (R) would direct the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set drinking water limits for both the widely used PFAS categories: perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl, and designate them  as “hazardous substances” within a prescribed timeframe.

Among other provisions, the bill, which has so far passed in the House, would limit industrial discharges of PFAS and incineration of PFAS-containing wastes; allocate funding for wastewater treatment; require EPA to report its work to clean up PFAS; and incorporate PFAS in the Clean Air Act’s hazardous pollutants list.

During a debate, as reported in the Hill, Dingell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shed light on PFAS exposures’ toll on people. Dingell stated the compounds are “exposing millions of Americans to health risks.”

Pelosi went on to say, “We are making clear that this legislation is a priority for the American people, and we will not relent until it is enacted.”

In the midst of this policy work, EPA released its Strategic Roadmap, announced in October 2021, intended to help advance investments in research; leverage authorities to mitigate PFAS release into the environment; and accelerate projects to clean up PFAS contamination.

The Roadmap lays out timelines for actions such as monitoring for PFAS in drinking water and setting enforceable drinking water limits. Other stated plans are to ensure a “robust’ review process for new PFAS; review previous decisions on these compounds; and restrict PFAS discharge from industrial sources, among actions.

Retailers

The entourage of retailers refusing PFAS packaging is growing, with Restaurant Brands International (RBI), owners of 27,000 restaurants around the world, coming out with the latest announcement: a global ban on PFAS in packaging by 2025. Falling under RBI’s umbrella are Burger King, Popeyes, and Tim Hortons.

The flurry of pledges from retailers (21 of them), mainly food and food packaging companies follow an aggressive national campaign led by Toxic-Free Future. The campaign pushes to eliminate these persistent compounds in packaging and called out specific brands after its investigation found all six national food chains under its watch relied on packaging that “likely contain toxic PFAS.” Nearly half of the samples tested positive for fluorine above the screening level.

RBI’s Burger King, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s were all brought into the public light and among those who have since taken action.

Following Toxic-Free Future’s disclosure that the iconic Big Mac is wrapped in PFAS-containing material, and a consequent flood of petitions, McDonald’s promised PFAS-free packaging by 2025—that’s across its 38,000 restaurants. Wendy’s moved more swiftly, committing to eliminate these chemicals in consumer-facing packaging in the U.S. and Canada by the end of 2021.

Some companies brought to the forefront, such as Sweetgreen, not only are banning or have banned PFAS but are introducing alternatives like PFAS-free bowls.

To jumpstart more food packaging alternatives, in 2021 Solenis and Zume, who supplies single-use plastic substitutes, developed and open sourced a process to make PFAS-free thermoformed molded fiber food service applications. The partners say tests confirm the technology, approved as acceptable for direct food contact, enables grease, oil, and water resistance. But mitigates environmental and health risks associated with PFAS.

Late last year, Christopher Dilkus, principal scientist at Solenis, told Waste360: “We are talking to everyone we can across the industry supply chain, from equipment manufacturers to companies making molded fiber articles and selling them to brands and grocers, so we can get the word out that we have something that can be used as a PFAS replacement.”

While most of the industry focus has been around food packaging, some other industries are clamping down on PFAS.  

Lowe’s will no longer sell fabric protectors with PFAS, announced in 2021 following its pledge to nix PFAS-treated indoor carpets and rugs from its inventory.

That same year Office Depot released a list of items it will restrict, including not only food ware but furniture and textiles containing PFAS.

Around the same time, VF Corporation, owners of The North Face, Vans, Timberland, and other outerwear apparel brands, announced it will phase out most PFAS from its products by 2025.

2022 Outlook

A lot of attention is turning to how the federal government will respond to PFAS. The outcome of the PFAS Action Act is up in the air as it awaits a vote from the upper chamber of Congress, but the U.S. EPA should have some announcements soon.

Litigation firm Freeman Mathis & Gary predicts on its website that the federal agency will likely soon make a final rule around designating PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), which could potentially take effect at the end of 2022. The firm goes on to say that a final rule on PFAS under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) is expected at the end of the year, potentially taking effect in 2023. 

Changes have begun on many fronts and are anticipated to keep gaining momentum.

 

 

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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