PFAS and why you are going to hear a lot more about them

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PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of man-made chemicals that have been used in various industries since the 1940s.  

There are thousands of these chemicals which are commonly found in products such as non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, some paper barriers and firefighting foams. Due to their widespread use and persistence in the environment, PFAS have become a growing concern in the recycling industry. 

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Indeed, conversations within Government are increasingly referring to them, and I know this is the case also in United States and European Union from our trade association colleagues there too. 

Some PFAS chemicals have been linked to negative health effects such as increased cholesterol levels, immune system issues, and increased risk of certain cancers. 

PFAS can end up in the recycling stream through the disposal of products that contain these chemicals. When these products are recycled, the PFAS can contaminate the recycled materials, making it difficult to ensure that the end product is free of these harmful substances. Materials that are most affected by PFAS contamination include paper and cardboard, textiles, and plastics. 

Currently, there are methods available to test for the presence of PFAS in recycled materials. However, these tests can be expensive and time-consuming, making it virtually impossible for recycling facilities to implement them on a large scale. As a result, it is challenging to ensure that recycled materials are free of PFAS contamination. 

To reduce the presence of PFAS in recycled materials, several measures are being taken. Some companies are phasing out the use of PFAS in their products, while others are developing alternative, safer chemicals to replace them. Additionally, there are efforts to improve the methods used to test for PFAS in recycled materials, making it easier and more cost-effective for recycling facilities to implement these tests. 

Governments and bodies such as the EU are also looking at how they can be phased out and replaced with safer alternatives. 

However, this will take time and unfortunately PFAS pollution is an issue that is only going to get stronger for us in the recycling industry. Even though we are not responsible for these chemicals, the fact they end up in the recycling stream means we’ll have to deal with the consequences in order to keep the public safe. It will enable materials to be part of a circular economy if we are certain PFAS levels are within safe tolerances. 

This isn’t an issue where The Recycling Association can work on its own. We are working with colleagues internationally including our umbrella trade association EuRIC in Europe, Recycled Materials Association (formerly known as ISRI) in United States and Bureau of International Recycling globally to investigate what this will mean for our industry, how we respond and how we ensure the impact of these chemicals on our industry is minimal. Over time, I’ll keep you updated on how we are getting on.