PFAS and Beyond — Looking at Outcomes and Implications
Ongoing Legislation and New Scientific Research Require Industry Collaboration
By William (Bill) Kuecker, senior director for global strategic marketing, food packaging, at Solenis
All of us involved in the food packaging space are fully aware of the whirlwind of activity that the industry has taken recently to eliminate per-and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) from products, especially in cases where it was used for oil and grease resistance in fiber-based packaging, as well as in plastic extrusion.
Fortunately, there were forward-thinking suppliers to the packaging industry that had predicted the need and eliminated PFAS in oil- and grease-resistant products for paper packaging, cups and molded fiber trays used in food service and many other applications. It has been a difficult change in many cases, as materials and processes were refined and, in some situations, fit-for-use characteristics were reassessed.
While this conversion is certainly not completed, let’s take a look at what we learned from this. We must also accept that science changes, new research emerges, and similar legislative or regulatory changes on additional food packaging-related issues are certainly possible in the future.
Impact of state regulations
One of the things that we have certainly demonstrated is the potential impact of state legislation in the U.S. on issues such as this. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, “in 2021, state legislatures considered at least 196 bills on PFAS, including efforts to eliminate the chemicals from food packaging, ban their use in firefighting foam, establish drinking water standards and eliminate PFAS from textiles, cosmetics and other products.” We should expect state legislatures in the U.S. and legislative bodies internationally to be very active in packaging-related issues in the future as they arise and evolve.
We should also take a look at the federal response. As of this writing, on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website, there is an article entitled “How FDA’s New Approach to Reviewing Chemicals Added to Food Will Strengthen Food Safety” that was updated in late May 2023. In this publication, the FDA characterizes the situation as: “When FDA scientists identify new research that
calls into question the safety of a chemical, we reassess and take action as needed. Take per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) for example. New information became available that demonstrated that the use of certain types of PFAS in certain types of food packaging raised concerns. The FDA took steps to revoke these authorizations or to work with manufacturers to phase out the use of these PFAS.” The article goes on to envision an “enhanced approach and new framework” in which FDA would develop new approaches to mine data and prioritize substances based on risk, if they receive greater funding.
So, within this framework — with the potential for swift legislative or regulatory mandate of change for currently unidentified issues — how can the food packaging industry prepare? I believe that at least part of the answer involves enhanced multilevel communication up and down the production chain of food packaging, from food and food service brands to suppliers of chemicals used in production of food packaging. For example, as a supplier of chemicals that enhance the functionality of fiber-based food packaging, we work directly with stakeholders across the supply chain in developing new formulations that impact the safety and performance of our customers’ products. We are all aware that innovation is not instantaneous, however. I encourage food manufacturers and the food packaging industry that serves them to reach out early in the process as you identify issues of future concern.
As the PFAS issue has clearly demonstrated, with the rapid pace of new science and active legislative and regulatory environments globally, requirements for packaging can change very quickly. There is no doubt that new challenges will emerge, but I am confident in the food packaging industry’s ability to overcome any issues that arise.
About the Author
William (Bill) Kuecker is the senior director for global strategic marketing, food packaging at Solenis, where he leads global efforts to provide materials that enhance the functionality and sustainability of paper-based packaging in the food and flexible packaging industry.