In light of new EPA guidance and increased consumer awareness, remediation strategies for the so-called ‘forever chemicals’ are coming under increased scrutiny.
As highly toxic chemical compounds found in everything from clothing to cookware to firefighting foam, per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) have recently gained steam as the latest class of dangerous compounds companies are looking to phase out of their products.
The pressure has become so strong, even the EPA took the formal step of issuing wide-ranging guidance through the first part of this year to create a roadmap towards phasing out PFAS — which have been nicknamed “forever chemicals” for their perceived inability to be destroyed — and proposing strict limits of 4 parts per trillion (ppt) for public drinking water.
“It’s such a contaminant that it spreads across product lines,” Jesper Danielsson, Head of Design and Product at Houdini, told Sustainable Brands®. The Swedish outdoor apparel company phased out PFAS from its products in 2018 — a rare example of proactive PFAS stewardship in the apparel industry, where use of the compounds are rampant, especially in waterproof coatings.
As the research has revealed the hazardous concentrations of PFAS across many aspects of our most critical natural resources and everyday interactions, there have been more accelerated efforts to remove the compounds; but massive work still remains in what to do with them after that.
The 'best of the worst' remediation pathways
A brand guide to driving sustainable consumer behavior change
Download SB's new, free guide to learn how your company can create an advantage in the marketplace through sustainable and innovative solutions that influence consumer behavior. The guide features case studies, a list of other helpful resources, and five actionable steps that brands and marketing teams can take to drive sustainable behavior change at scale.
Much of the remediation conversation is focused on groundwater and surface water improvement, using two methods: “Pump and treat” is when a water supply is literally pumped through an activated carbon filter in an energy-intensive process that cleans water to return to the ground storage, or brought to the surface for later use. “In situ” treatment injects small, particle-size activated carbon into a water supply to stop a plume of PFAS from infiltrating the water. Both remedies have proven effective, but don’t solve the issue of what to do with PFAS once the compounds are isolated.
According to Joe Wong, Chief Technology Officer at carbon filter supplier Advanced Emissions Solutions (AES), solutions to date have involved either incinerating the remaining PFAS or sending them to landfill — neither of which destroy or neutralize the compounds.
“Right now, it’s a ‘what’s the best of the worst?’ situation,” he told Sustainable Brands. “You have to immobilize the PFAS to keep it from moving; but then you have to decide what to do with it.”
Regenesis VP of Quality and Process Improvement Kristen Thoreson admits that currently, it’s a case of “moving the liability around” when it comes to what to do with PFAS post-removal. She cited a couple of case studies where Regenesis products stopped the migration of PFAS long term (in Ontario, Canada in one example); but that doesn’t solve the secondary issue, where plumes of these compounds can be miles long.
“They can certainly hit some kind of sensitive receptor (such as a municipal water supply point) — and at the ppt level, that concentration (and its impacts) can be hard to grasp,” she adds.
Then, there’s cost
AES VP of Sales Oscar Velasquez notes how cost-prohibitive PFAS removal remains at a broad scale.
“That’s probably the single biggest question outside of environmental impact,” he told SB.
A broader issue for apparel companies, specifically, is that PFAS are such a rampant contaminant that suppliers would need to completely rebuild some factories to eliminate them entirely, according to Danielsson. It’s another cost factor — especially since PFAS continue to be integral to performance gear production, even as more companies attempt to answer the growing consumer and regulatory calls to phase them out. Some apparel suppliers also make non-apparel items that retain PFAs and crossover to the apparel manufacturing lines.
Since there’s no uniform PFAS-removal solution that’s widely applicable, every entity must take a different approach; and that means cost could be anywhere from $5 million up into the trillions over a longer period of time.
A potential way forward
However, as we covered last year, researchers at Northwestern University may have uncovered a more cost-effective and energy-efficient solution: Using a fairly straightforward chemical process, they devised a way to turn certain chain sections keeping PFAS together into simple fluoride. If the process proves scalable, it would lead to a much easier and safer end product to dispose of (Northwestern researchers did not respond to a request for comment as of press time).