The Intersection of Sustainable Packaging and PFAS

The Intersection of Sustainable Packaging and PFAS
Creating a circular economy is an essential sustainability target for numerous stakeholders in the supply chain: governments, brands, suppliers, and consumers. A key element of this is reducing plastic waste; the OECD estimated that over 350 million metric tonnes of plastic waste was generated globally in 2019. Addressing plastic waste generation requires solutions from every sector, especially the plastics packaging sector, which utilizes about one-third of annual plastics production. Single-use plastic packaging, from cling films to flexible chip bags to take-out containers, is generated in huge volumes but quickly ends up in municipal waste streams.
The issues that single-use plastic packaging presents are compelling legislative and regulatory bodies worldwide to pass mandates and guidelines aimed at increasing the sustainability of single-use packaging. For example, the European Commission recently passed the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR), which mandates that all packaging be recyclable and contain a minimum recycled content percentage for plastic packaging, amongst other provisions. Prior to the passage of the PPWR, the European Union passed the Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUPD), which banned some single-use plastic items for which non-plastic alternatives are available, such as cutlery, plates, straws, and expanded polystyrene food containers. In the United States, where 47% of plastic waste comes from single-use products and packaging, different states and municipalities are introducing bans on certain single-use plastic items, like bags and straws.
Thanks to these regulations, many companies are switching to paper-based and fiber-based packaging, such as molded fiber packaging and recycled paper packaging. However, this switch presents some issues given the historic usage of PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) in food-contact applications, particularly on paper and molded fiber packaging. This article will explore the intersection of sustainable packaging and PFAS, which is thoroughly discussed in IDTechEx's report "Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) 2024: Emerging Applications, Alternatives, Regulations".
Typical usage of PFAS in food packaging
PFAS has been historically used since the 1950s in food-contact packaging applications, particularly on paper and compostable molded fiber packaging, in coatings that impart oil and grease repellence. Such coatings could be found in:
  • Take out boxes (i.e., pizza boxes) and clam shells
  • Baking paper and muffin cups
  • Take out cups
  • French fries and microwave popcorn packaging
  • Fast-food paper wrappers
The primary function of PFAS is as a barrier or repellent against grease, stains, and water. This barrier will limit the migration of grease and water from the food to the packaging during the food's transport, storage, and consumption. Previously, long-chain PFAS such as PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) were utilized in food-contact applications. With growing concerns over long-chain PFAS, many manufacturers of PFAS for food-contact applications switched to short-chain PFAS, such as 6:2 fluorotelomer alcohol (FTOH).
Increasing regulatory actions on PFAS in food packaging
Until recently, the usage of PFAS in food-contact applications was allowed in many major markets, including the US and the EU. However, increasing concerns over human exposure to PFAS led to increased regulatory actions specifically targeting PFAS in food-contact applications; most of these regulations have been passed in the past 5-6 years. For example, in 2020, the US Food and Drug Administration announced a voluntary phase-out of 6:2 FTOH in food packaging applications by 2023. Denmark banned PFAS coatings products for paper and cardboard-based food packaging the same year. Most recently, in 2024, the EU's PPWR banned all food-contact packaging containing PFAS above a certain concentration.
Finding alternatives for PFAS in sustainable food packaging
The concurrent trends of phasing out both single-use plastic packaging and PFAS coatings for packaging is creating an interesting challenge and opportunity. The move away from single-use plastic packaging is encouraging increased usage of paper-based and fiber-based packaging, which historically used PFAS-based coatings that are now beginning to be banned in major markets. This creates an opportunity for packaging and coating companies alike to develop non-plastic packaging solutions that do not contain PFAS.
Some historic manufacturers of PFAS for food packaging applications, such as Daikin America, have already developed polymeric non-PFAS coatings for paper-based and fiber-based packaging. However, a key challenge for polymeric coatings in food packaging applications is their impact on recyclability. Another issue with PFAS-based coatings, unrelated to their health effects, was that they negatively impacted the recyclability of packaging using them; polymer-coated paper and laminates are frequently landfilled for this reason.
As such, alternatives are required that both replace PFAS in coatings while also maintaining the recyclability of paper and fiber-based packaging. Discussed in more detail in IDTechEx's "Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) 2024: Emerging Applications, Alternatives, Regulations" report, emerging alternatives that attempt to address these requirements include biowax and nanocellulose coatings for barrier property improvements and additives that increase the performance of paper for food packaging applications. As more regions and countries pass regulations impacting both single-use plastic packaging and PFAS in food packaging, more diverse approaches to addressing PFAS in sustainable food packaging may emerge as more companies look to address this key whitespace.
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