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IDTechEx weighs market potential of biowaxes and upcycled biowaste as new PFAS alternatives

#IDTechEx weighs market potential of biowaxes and upcycled biowaste as new PFAS alternatives

29 Mar 2024 — Technology consultancy IDTechEx has released a report on the future trajectory of “forever chemicals” (PFAS) in food packaging, next to other major industries. Focusing on F&B, Sona Dadhania, the company’s senior technology analyst, speaks to Packaging Insights about the latest advances in PFAS alternatives and developments in consumer awareness.

The colloquialism “forever chemicals” hints at the most visible hazard of PFAS — its persistence in humans, wildlife and the environment. Synthetic forever chemicals are used across a wide variety of common food applications, usually as a grease repellant in fast food packaging and non-stick cookware.

“This IDTechEx report primarily considers alternatives to PFAS-based coatings for paper and fiber-based packaging applications, which are often used as replacements to single-use plastic packaging,” Dadhania tells us.

“While non-PFAS polymer coatings are commercially available for such applications — often by the same suppliers as PFAS-based coatings — this is less of a focus for the report given that such coatings may pose other concerns, such as their impact on packaging recyclability and general consumer preferences for ‘greener’ alternatives that use less plastic.”

The IDTechEx report considers more novel PFAS alternatives for sustainable packaging applications, such as biobased wax coatings, nanocellulose coatings and nanoceramic coatings.

“While one of the options, biobased wax coatings, is sold at the commercial scale by a large specialty chemicals player (Solenis), the rest are at a significantly earlier stage of technology development and thus are less likely to have achieved cost-parity with incumbent solutions as they have not achieved economies of scale yet,” says Dadhania.

Market potential for PFAS alternatives
PFAS are synthetic chemical compounds that contain multiple fluorine atoms attached to an alkyl chain.

Many alternatives could potentially replace PFAS in these emerging applications, highlights IDTechEx. The consultancy highlights these alternatives may be at “different stages of technology readiness” and market maturity.

Nonstick frying panSynthetic forever chemicals are a common grease repellant in fast food packaging and non-stick cookware.However, analyzing factors like their status, suppliers, advantages and disadvantages has helped create a “critical assessment” of the market potential of PFAS alternatives.

Some alternatives have the potential to substantially impact their application areas, while others have a much longer road to market penetration that includes solving major technical and economic challenges.

“There are relatively few examples of successful replacement of PFAS in sustainable food packaging applications with the previously identified alternatives, given that most of them are at an early stage in technology development,” says Dadhania.

“One of the more public examples is Solenis’s biowax solutions being used by Zume (a start-up developing molded non-wood fiber packaging) to replace PFAS in their packaging, although Zume has since closed,” she adds.

“Solenis has also partnered with another start-up, Biolutions, who are developing molded fiber packaging derived from agricultural waste.”

Impact of PFAS labels on consumer demand
As IDTechEx’s report primarily focuses on emergent technologies and materials to replace PFAS, rather than consumer behavior, Dadhania believes it is “difficult to predict” exactly how PFAS-free labeling may impact consumer decision-making.

On the one hand, she highlights multiple studies that have shown that consumers are willing to pay the “green premium” for more sustainable packaging products.

“But on the other hand, awareness of PFAS or the term ‘forever chemicals’ is not universal, with different studies and surveys showing that anywhere between 40% to 70% of respondents were unaware of those terms or of the risks of PFAS,” she tells us.

This week, a report by Sapio Research found that most (80%) of its surveyed consumers are unfamiliar with forever chemicals and even the term PFAS.

“It is possible that PFAS-free labeling will only be impactful if public awareness of PFAS is high enough,” Dadhania concedes.

Burger and fries in a takeout boxPFAS alternatives include biobased wax coatings, nanocellulose coatings and nanoceramic coatings.Evolving regulatory landscape
With rising concerns over the impact of PFAS on human health and the environment, there are pushes for increased regulations on the use of certain groups of PFAS.

Several important regions in the global economy are considering or adopting universal PFAS restrictions, including the EU (which introduced its universal PFAS restriction proposal in 2023) and the US states of Maine and Minnesota.

“With such a complicated landscape of PFAS regulations potentially developing worldwide, it is essential for businesses to understand existing and proposed regulations for PFAS to understand its potential effect on them,” states IDTechEx.

In its report, the consultancy maintains that “anyone connected to emerging industries” should begin to feel an increasing pressure to understand the impact of future PFAS regulations, in addition to learning what alternative materials are available in their respective sectors.

“Not only is PFAS persistent, but they can also be found even in isolated areas. Humans can be exposed to PFAS through a variety of sources,” it underscores.

“Now, scientific evidence is growing that, depending on different factors, continued exposure to specific PFAS may lead to negative health effects, such as increased risk of cancer, developmental delays and hormonal issues (per the US EPA and the OECD).”

By Benjamin Ferrer

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