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What PFAS producers should do instead of burying their heads in the sand


What PFAS producers should do instead of burying their heads in the sand

Why do some PFAS companies continue to invest tons of money and fight tooth and nail to keep producing these harmful and contested chemicals? Because many are stuck in their old ways, unwilling to change. But not all. Some companies have started to future-proof their businesses by developing PFAS-free alternatives.

Published on 11 Jan 2024

PFAS have been used in our society for a long time. These harmful “forever chemicals” are used in countless products, everything from frying pans to advanced weapons materials. They’re an essential chemical component in modern society if you ask the PFAS producers themselves. Their latest shtick is that PFAS is necessary for the green transition and that without these chemicals we won’t be able to reach our climate goals.

While it is true that PFAS chemicals are still needed in a few select applications that are essential for society where there currently are no other alternatives, only a tiny share of the world’s PFAS production is used for that purpose.

PFAS producers are fighting tooth and nail to keep these harmful chemicals largely unregulated in a political and regulatory landscape that is steadily shifting. But PFAS aren’t seen as miracle chemicals anymore. Nowadays, they’re more closely associated with all the harm they are causing people and planet.

Instead of moving away from PFAS production, the company has invested heavily in new and existing facilities

Lawsuits and state-level PFAS regulations in the US together with a historic proposal for a universal PFAS ban in Europe are in the process of completely changing the regulatory context of these chemicals. On top of this, consumer awareness about PFAS’ negative health and environmental effects is growing rapidly and a multi-trillion-dollar investor network has been formed to address the financial risks linked to their production and use.

So how are the PFAS manufacturers addressing this new reality? Well, some seem to consider business-as-usual as the best way forward and bury their heads in the sand, refusing to change.

Some expand their PFAS production

Take US chemical company Chemours as an example. Instead of moving away from PFAS production, the company has invested heavily in new and existing facilities and increased its PFAS production. But Chemours has also been forced to spend a lot on measures to contain, recycle and monitor these harmful chemicals.

It has, for example, spent more than $100 million on a 30-meter-deep wall at one of its US facilities to keep more PFAS from flowing into the nearby rivers (the facility’s past pollution had already contaminated the surrounding waterways). And to deal with contamination around one of its plants in the Netherlands, the company promised to transport millions of pounds of PFAS waste over to the US for “recycling”. But public protests and inaccuracies about how much waste the company is really able to recycle led to the US EPA putting a halt to that endeavour.

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To top it all off, the United Nation’s Human Rights Council sent a letter to Chemours describing “human rights violations and abuses” in connection to its PFAS production.

So, continuing to produce “forever chemicals” while spending hundreds of millions of dollars on (failing) risk management measures is one way to go.

Some invest in safer alternatives

Fortunately, not all PFAS producers are alike. Some companies have decided to take a different path. Notorious PFAS producer 3M — admittedly much too late — has decided to completely step away from PFAS, discontinuing production from 2025. In its announcement, the company commented that it is “committing to innovate toward a world less dependent upon PFAS”.

This means developing safer alternatives. Something many PFAS companies have started to figure out.  DIC Corporation and Mitsubishi Chemical have, for example, developed a surface-active agent for semiconductor manufacturing and a hard-to-burn plastic material that can be used for smartphones and personal computers. Both of them PFAS-free.

Future-proof the business by developing safer alternatives for new green technologies

These Japanese chemical companies are not the only ones invested in finding safer alternatives to PFAS. European chemical companies Solvay and Arkema have been developing fluoro-free surfactants over the last couple of years. Chemical company Asahi-Kasei has taken another approach and future-proofed its business by teaming up with the start-up Ionomr Innovations, a provider of PFAS-free alternatives to PEM fuel cells.

So, if you had to choose, which one would you pick?

Option 1: Keep producing PFAS while spending company money on expensive walls and lawyers (and violating human rights).

Option 2: Use the same money to future-proof the business by developing safer alternatives for new green technologies.