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Plastics firms work to eliminate PFAS use as pressure mounts

Wanting to eliminate PFAS, a group of so-called forever chemicals, from plastics and actually eliminating PFAS from plastics are two different things. But Inteplast Engineered Films, the blown film maker, is committing to discontinuing use of the chemicals from production.

“We as an organization have made the decision that, in order to simplify things — because we do a mix of industrial and food packaging — the safest thing for us to do is to get rid of the PFAS substances out of our process,” Sales Director Steve Griggs at IEF said in a recent interview.

But that’s easier said than done. IEF historically has used PFAS as a processing aid to blow film.

“Where the PFAS comes in in our industry is we use them as a process aid. So basically when you make a film, there is a friction between the film and the die on which the film is coming out,” explained Sumita Ranganathan, senior technical manager at IEF.

IEF, a division of Inteplast Group, already has identified alternative chemistries to replace PFAS as processing aides.

But, Griggs said, that’s only part of the story as PFAS also can be found in resins, additives and colorants the company uses to create film products.

“That’s where the challenge comes in,” he said.

IEF is vetting each product that comes through its doors. But it is not always initially clear whether these raw materials contain PFAS, Griggs explained. The company sometimes has been told by suppliers that their products do not contain PFAS only to later discover they actually are present.

PFAS — short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are a widely used group of manufactured chemicals that have been around since the 1940s, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The problem with PFAS reaches far beyond plastics. But make no mistake: Their use is under an ever-increasing spotlight.

While PFAS are used for plastic packaging, they also are used common products such as cleaners, paper, textiles and even cosmetics.

PFAS are especially alarming because they are hard to break down in the environment and can build up in people and wildlife over time. But they also dissolve in water and are not removed with traditional water treatment technologies.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences puts some perspective on what this means.

PFAS molecules link carbon and fluorine atoms, a particularly strong bond that results in longevity, according to NIEHS. Human exposure varies by occupation and location, but exposure is mostly like due to consumption of contaminated food or water, using products made from the chemicals or breathing air that contains PFAS.

One federal report for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found PFAS in 97 percent of all Americans. And research has found the chemical group causes low birth weight, birth defects, delayed development and newborn deaths in laboratory animals, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Because there are many types of PFAS chemicals, which often occur in complex mixtures and in various everyday products, researchers face challenges in studying them,” NIEHS said.

A road map to action

PFAS and their impacts are such a complex topic that EPA created a road map in late 2021 just to outline how the agency is going to study the issues and take action. That work continues into 2024.

IEF has been looking at the PFAS issue for a couple of years now and initially did not receive much interest from its customers in the issue. But that has changed in recent months as the PFAS issue has gained attention around the country.

“Now, suddenly, they have a great deal of interest. It’s not like it’s not been out there. But I think it’s snuck up on some people,” Griggs said. “There’s been a lot more activity in the last three months.”

IEF is currently putting emphasis on the food-grade portion of its business to completely eliminate PFAS, but it plans to eliminate PFAS from industrial products as well.

PFAS can be found in water, soil, air and food. “One common characteristic of concern of PFAS is that many break down very slowly and can build up in people, animals and the environment over time,” EPA said.

EPA calls PFAS an “urgent public health and environmental issue facing communities across the United States.”

Increased regulation

The writing, essentially, is on the wall for PFAS as more and more laws are being passed around the country regulating their use. Regulators and researchers are trying to understand more about the impacts of PFAS.

“Current scientific research suggests that exposure to high levels of certain PFAS may lead to adverse health outcomes. However, research is still ongoing to determine how different levels of exposure to different PFAS can lead to a variety of health effects,” EPA said.

The agency started examining PFAS in 2021 with an eye on better understanding the impacts of chemicals along with creating ways to restrict their entry into the environment. EPA also wants to create plans to remediate PFAS-contaminated sites.

IEF joins other companies in the plastics industry taking note of the changing landscape when it comes to PFAS. Ampacet Corp. is out with 1001316-N, a PFAS-free polymer processing aid the company said works “as well as fluoro-based PPAs in blown film extrusion for multiple end use applications.”

“Because of potential health hazards, [PFAS] have been regulated by several states. Additional governmental restrictions are expected this year and beyond,” Ampacet said on its website.

“Designed to be used at the same or similar LDR (let down ratio or dosage) as Ampacet’s conventional PPAs, PFAS-Free PPA is FDA food contact-compliant and comparable in cost to fluoro-based PPAs. Like fluoro-based PPAs, it eliminates melt fracture, reduces die buildup for less downtime and offers increased throughput,” the company said.

Food packaging company Sabert Corp. also revealed plans to eliminate PFAS from all products by the end of this year. Sabert, which makes both plastic and paper products, has been working for more than three years to develop and refine new PFAS-free formulas.

“As insights increased on the concerns regarding PFAS, we dedicated our Centers for Innovation on the task of developing new and proprietary material blends, product formulations and mechanical manufacturing enhancements that remove the need to add PFAS chemicals,” Christopher Howell, Sabert director of product management, said in an email interview.

“In addition to the environmental harms, PFAS have been linked to a variety of health problems. Recognizing these concerns, at Sabert, we are committed to developing and instituting alternatives to intentionally added PFAS by the end of 2023,” he continued.

The company’s newest 350,000-square-foot manufacturing site in Greenville, Texas, opened in 2022 and is only producing PFAS-free packaging, the company said. Overall, the company’s product mix includes about 60-70 percent plastic products.

“This new facility is critical to enabling us to develop more PFAS-free products and deliver on our ultimate goal to enhance and advance the way people enjoy food by providing innovative and sustainable solutions,” Howell said in a separate statement. “By committing to removing all intentionally added PFAS from our products, we are helping our customers increase their own sustainability efforts.”

3M Corp., meanwhile, has committed to exiting the PFAS manufacturing business, with annual sales of $1.3 billion, by the end of 2025. The company is based in Minnesota, where lawmakers just announced they will consider legislation to ban nonessential use of PFAS in manufacturing.

“We must start by stopping these chemicals from entering the environment and therefore our bodies in the first place,” Minnesota state Sen. Kelly Morrison said in a local news report.

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