While the FDA over the years has allowed PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) to be used in paper and paperboard food packaging, it certainly makes sense today to eliminate as much PFAS as possible from the environment, because these chemicals (like the ones used in firefighting foams) simply don’t go away—they don’t naturally decompose—hence they’ve become known as the “forever chemicals.”

It would be one thing if these chemicals were benign, but new evidence is showing them to be potentially carcinogenic, and though FDA has stated that in packaging uses, the PFAS chemicals don’t likely migrate into the food, nevertheless, the disposal of packaging containing these substances is problematic as they live forever in our soils and waters. No matter how a human may ingest PFAS, the result is not good as these chemicals reside in our bodies “forever.” They are not excreted.

According to the NIH National Cancer Institute, “the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the most well-studied per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS), as a possible human carcinogen based in part on limited epidemiologic evidence of associations with cancers of the kidney and testis in heavily exposed subjects.”

Long-chain molecular PFAS chemicals were revoked for use in food packaging in November 2016. Based on clinical studies, FDA has also recommended the use of short-chain PFAS molecules be phased out over the next three years, beginning in this year. Three of four suppliers of PFAS chemicals for packaging applications agreed to the phase-out while the fourth supplier has already withdrawn its product from the market.

Solving the PFAS problem in packaging

Two companies have working together to eliminate PFAS in packaging applications such as fast-food and cardboard carry-out containers and papers, which use these chemicals to prevent water and cooking oil egress for the half-hour or so they are in use. Solenis, a global producer of specialty chemicals, focusing on delivering sustainable solutions for water-intensive industries and Zume, a company dedicated to reducing the world’s plastic waste with economically viable substitutes for plastic packaging, have spent nine months of collaboration to create a solution that removes PFAS chemicals from fiberboard packaging.

Zume and Solenis are open-sourcing the recipe and manufacturing process so that all packaging manufacturers can adopt the technique and speed up the removal of harmful chemicals. This marks an important milestone for the industry, as two major companies unveil the complex process of creating a molded fiber packaging solution that ensures food grease and water resistance without the need for PFAS or harmful chemicals.

The joint team research, carried out by Zume and Solenis, identified five key parameters—thermoforming, freeness, chemistry management, charge management and part formation—for achieving oil and grease resistance with chemistry that eliminated PFAS and achieved two hours of oil holdout with 60°C oil. By following these process parameters and control strategy, manufacturers around the world will be able to provide end-use consumers with a fully functional product that does not pose a health risk.

Not only have the new chemicals been effective as a barrier in packaging, they are fully compostable within 90 days of disposal. The new PFAS-free solution has proven so effective that Zume says it will no longer manufacture any products that contain PFAS from its California packaging facility, effective immediately, and the company is collaborating with its global partners to ensure that all production globally is PFA-free by the end of 2021.

“Open-sourcing our PFA-free solution creates a path for brands across the world to remove plastics and harmful chemicals from their consumer packaging and single-use goods,” says Zume CEO and Chairman Alex Garden. “Brands have made pledges to remove PFAS and this new launch will enable them to deliver on their promises.”

“Our goal is to encourage any manufacturer in the world to start using this technology as quickly as possible,” says Solenis CEO John Panichella. “Through this joint initiative with Zume, global brands can meet their commitments to eliminate the use of PFAS faster than ever before.”

Two companies on the move

In June, Zume shared global expansion deals with 20-plus countries spanning the UK, Europe and Russia, followed by sustainable manufacturing agreements with India’s Parason and Satia Industries in May. Most recently, Zume unveiled a high-profile partnership with Texas-based Jefferson Enterprise Energy to build a $220M, 100% clean energy-powered, sustainable manufacturing plant.

Solenis has announced that it is merging with Sigura in an acquisition by Platinum Equity that was valued at more than $5 billion.

To partner with Zume and Solenis, go to: zume.com/pages/brands.


Whitepaper: “Putting Forever Chemicals to Rest: An Open-Source Guide to PFA-Free Packaging;” Pamela Horine, Zume, Inc.; Christopher Dikus, Solenis, LLC; Cindy Chau, Zume, Inc.; Dottie Klein, Solenis, LLC; 2021; Download here.