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Nobody really knows what happens to PFAS when we throw our old products away
Scratch marks on Teflon pan


Nobody really knows what happens to PFAS when we throw our old products away

We know by now that PFAS is bad for a myriad of reasons. But it’s also bad because of something we don’t know much about at all, namely what happens when products containing PFAS are thrown in the garbage bin.

What we do know for sure is that PFAS doesn’t just vanish – and that fact alone should be cause for concern.

Published on 11 Jan 2023

You’ve heard it many times. PFAS, a group of over 5 000 chemicals used in a wide range of products we all use every day, are toxic and linked to severe health problems.

We know this. What we don’t know is what happens when we are finished using our PFAS-containing products and throw them away.

– We know that large amounts of PFAS enter the waste system, but we have no idea where they end up, Jonatan Kleimark, senior chemicals and business advisor at ChemSec, says.

No safe way to get rid of your raincoat

Let’s say you bought yourself a raincoat. Highly water-resistant, does what it’s supposed to do, keeps you dry. Then you suddenly realize that your jacket contains hazardous chemicals. You want to get rid of it safely. But here’s the catch – no one knows how to do that. Research has yet to show what happens to PFAS when you throw your raincoat in the bin, or in other words, in a product’s end-of-life phase.

As of today, there are a couple of ways to take care of waste containing PFAS.

Globally, landfills are common. But that’s not a good option, since leachate from landfills goes into the surroundings and may contaminate the groundwater.

What about recycling, then? Normally, that would be a good option, but since PFAS are hazardous to human health, it is not wise to re-use materials with PFAS in new products.

Doesn’t break down at normal incinerator temperatures

Lastly, there is incineration. Burning the waste must make PFAS go away, right? Unfortunately not. Research suggests that PFAS, famously known as “forever chemicals”, are not broken down at normal incinerator temperatures, although much is currently unknown when it comes to how PFAS compounds behave during incineration.

– Regarding incineration, there are several potential ways that PFAS might end up in the surroundings, Jonatan Kleimark explains. For example, through the wastewater, the different ashes, scrubber outlets, or even as volatile gases leaving through the chimney.

Some research has been carried out regarding PFAS exposure linked to waste incineration, mainly in Europe. One study made in the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Spain in 2021 tested for PFAS and other pollutants downwind of three waste incinerators. In Spain, alarming levels of PFAS were found in pine needles, ten times greater than the reference sample.

And in the Czech Republic, high levels of PFAS were found in chicken eggs and mosses near a waste incinerator.

Tracking the movements of airborne molecules is no easy task. But since PFAS has been found on both poles due to atmospheric transport, PFAS contamination through the atmosphere seems likely. Studies have been made regarding PFAS dispersion from manufacturing facilities, and research suggests it is safe to assume similar transport patterns from incinerator stacks.

Reduce the use is the only safe option

– In order to properly handle consumer waste containing PFAS, we need three things. First of all, transparency from the producers. We need to know what consumer products contain to be able to sort and recycle. Second, we need more research to understand what happens during incineration. As of now, we don’t have sufficient knowledge. Third, we need legislation that properly addresses these issues, Jonatan Kleimark says.

Knowing how much we don’t know about what happens with PFAS when we throw our old products away, it seems as if there is only one safe path to take; reduce the use. If PFAS are not used in products in the first place, it cannot cause further harm in the waste phase.