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‘We can never get to zero’: Organics recyclers face hard choices in responding to PFAS contamination

Composting and biosolids stakeholders worry regulations will decimate their industry, while environmental and health groups say action is critical.
Brian Tucker/Waste Dive; Photograph by Philip Rozenski via Getty Images

In January of this year, the Michigan city of Ann Arbor announced a grim discovery: traces of a notorious group of toxic chemicals had cropped up in the city’s compost facility. Samples collected by city officials several months earlier had tested positive for 13 types of PFAS.

Levels were low in the compost samples and also in water samples collected from two of the facility’s retention ponds, which yielded 12 types of PFAS. The city shared the results, tested by an independent lab, pointing to PFAS-laden items as the likely culprit. Those include grease-resistant paper and fast food containers, items prohibited by Ann Arbor’s composting program but sometimes placed in bins regardless.

In sharing the data, officials noted there are no national health guidelines in place regarding PFAS in compost, while research around the issue remains limited.

PFAS in compost

Sampling released last December in New Hanover County, North Carolina, yielded 16 types of PFAS in the area’s food waste composting program, and other municipalities are seeing similar results. State level studies have shown the same trends, including one September 2019 survey of five source-separated organics facilities and two yard waste facilities in Minnesota. That study confirmed the presence of one or more PFAS per site at or above the state’s current solid waste program intervention limits.

Ann Arbor’s findings weren’t an anomaly; testing in states like North Carolina and Minnesota has also yielded PFAS in organics facilities that accept food waste. But the city’s test results drew some national attention when Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., pointed to them as justification for a proposed federal ban on PFAS in food packaging. And they also led to an uptick in industry attention, according to multiple individuals who work with organics, even though site operator WeCare Denali has not reported any major ramifications stemming from the findings.

PFAS appearing in compost have not sparked major financial or regulatory changes for the sector, but stakeholders have been eyeing more dramatic events unfolding in the wider organics recycling world. Maine, for example, is cracking down on biosolids and food packaging over concerns about contamination, with steep financial implications for the municipalities involved. Other states are eyeing similar measures, particularly in the Northeast.

While organics trade groups are lobbying against what they say is unfair scrutiny that should instead be directed at PFAS manufacturers, they are also working to prepare for an uncertain future around the chemicals. That could potentially impact food scraps and lead to more organics being sent to landfills or incinerators — a trend those in the sector say could hinder climate goals.

What are PFAS?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a family of thousands of chemicals known for their non-stick properties. Sometimes referred to as “forever chemicals” due to their all but indestructible and persistent nature, PFAS appear in a wide array of household items like frying pans, rain jackets, and dental floss. They are often measured in parts per trillion (ppt) and occasionally in parts per billion (ppb) or parts per million (ppm).

Studies show PFAS appear in the blood of 99% of humans and in far-flung parts of the world, including in Arctic seawater. They have also been linked to cancer, developmental effects, and other severe health issues by organizations including the U.S. EPA. At least two, PFOA and PFOS, have been phased out of production in the United States.

Food packaging emerges as a top issue for composters

PFAS enter organics facilities through multiple avenues, but composters handling food waste largely agree the main source of the chemicals in their facilities is packaging.

This past July, several chemical manufacturers announced a voluntary deal with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) phasing out the use of one type of PFAS, 6:2 fluorotelomer alcohol (6:2 FTOH), beginning in January 2021. The decision followed research done by the agency on certain PFAS in food packaging, leading AGC Chemicals Americas, Archroma Management, and Daikin America to agree to the shift; a fourth company, Chemours, had already done so.

That announcement — made during the height of another public health crisis: the coronavirus pandemic — reflects evolving realities as more becomes known about how people consume PFAS. It also reflects a shift underway in the organics space, where food packaging has emerged as a critical issue for composters for multiple reasons.

“This phase out is important,” said Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) Executive Director Rhodes Yepsen, referencing the FDA announcement and noting its scope addresses food packaging more broadly beyond just compostables. “Do we wish it covered the entire class of fluorinated chemicals so that there aren’t regrettable substations again? Absolutely. However, this is still progress.”

Yepsen is no stranger to conversations around PFAS in food packaging, a problem he said emerged for his organization in 2016, a year after he was hired. As of this year, BPI ceased certifying products or packaging as compostable if they contain any intentionally added PFAS, requiring a statement signed by the manufacturer, a technical review of all ingredients, and a test showing no more than 100 ppm of fluorine.

Yepsen said BPI’s actions were born out of communications with San Francisco’s Department of the Environment. At the time, PFAS had yet to become a major issue for composters. But San Francisco officials realized PFAS were appearing in products certified as compostable, a decision made by manufacturers and at the time unknown by many in the composting world.

“We don’t certify most products going to composting facilities, [so] well what could we do? What could our role be to help on this?” said Yepsen, recalling initial conversations about the topic.

That thinking soon changed. Litigation and public outcry had been mounting for years as coverage of cancer clusters in places like Parkersburg, West Virginia, drew attention to the health implications of PFAS outside of a waste context. Increasingly concerned about their presence in compost, BPI hired a technical adviser in 2017 to consult on the matter, who noted state regulations might be on the horizon. Ongoing conversations with composters, municipalities, and environmental groups also led to a similar conclusion: the organization would need to act, and quickly, to head off a potential crisis.

A swift mobilization followed, with BPI’s membership and board of directors voting in November 2017 to approve changes to exclude products containing PFAS from certification. BPI-certified items not meeting that limit would be phased out by 2019.

Many BPI-certified products did not contain PFAS to begin with, according to Yepsen and Wendell Simonson, BPI’s marketing director. Compostable products often achieve their necessary grease-resistant properties through biopolymers like polylactic acid, polyhydroxyalkanoate, or compostable waxes. But the potential for a major long-term issue outweighed those realities, they said. The decision generated an uptick in labor costs, per the organization, including outreach to every BPI member, and led to the delisting of around 2,000 products from the organization’s database of around 10,000.

BPI’s efforts would seem prescient for many in the industry. In August 2019, The Counter (then called New Food Economy) published an investigative report finding that fiber bowls advertised as compostable and used at fast-casual food establishments like Sweetgreen and Chipotle contained traces of PFAS.

PFAS have been found in compostable foodware at fast-casual restaurants like Sweetgreen.

The Counter’s findings also referenced a May 2019 study, published in the Environmental Science & Technology Letters journal, that looked at 10 composting locations in all three West Coast states, along with Massachusetts and North Carolina. All sites were commercial facilities, apart from one backyard composting pile. Sites that accepted foodware yielded PFAS levels 10 times higher than the others. The Counter’s own testing, done with the help of a lab, showed levels of fluorine 10 to 20 times higher than the 100 ppm threshold BPI has now instated.

Those findings came as San Francisco was rolling out regulations on PFAS in food packaging, with at least one company making the shift. Maude Michel, a spokesperson for Sweetgreen, said it partnered with compostable packaging company Footprint to pilot PFAS-free bowls in San Francisco stores in January.

“Our goal is to roll out this new packaging to all of our restaurants, nationwide by the end of 2020, at which time they’ll also be made domestically and out of post-industrial recycled paperboard,” Michel said.

Many stakeholders say such changes in the composting space are coming early and respond more to perception than to a full-blown public health crisis. “PFAS [are] pretty pervasive in the environment, traces of them are pretty much everywhere,” said Neil Edgar, who has worked in the composting world for decades and serves as both a member of the U.S. Composting Council’s Legislative and Environmental Affairs Committee and as a policy liaison for the California Organics Recycling Council.

Like others in the sector, Edgar views organics recycling as an environmentally-friendly approach to waste management that can also help with other looming issues like climate change. PFAS could limit the growth of that sector, he said, and potentially see organics headed for a landfill just as states like California are ramping up food waste diversion programs.

“The customers who use compost are generally doing so from a sustainable frame of mind. They’re trying to do what’s best for the environment,” said Edgar, noting PFAS are beginning to complicate that.

Edgar has not noticed significant financial ramifications for composters associated with PFAS concerns. But he was candid about the potential for future problems, especially given the use of compost in gardens and farms used to grow food. For the broader organics recycling space, he said the problem is much more dire, particularly for those interacting with wastewater treatment plants. Those adjacent struggles offer a preview of what may play out for the rest of the waste industry as public scrutiny mounts.

Biosolids stakeholders confront a spiraling problem

For the North East Biosolids & Residuals Association (NEBRA), few issues have been as all-consuming in recent years as PFAS.

“It’s overshadowing all the good things and people are losing sight of all the benefits [of organics recycling],” said NEBRA Executive Director Janine Burke-Wells.

Her colleague, NEBRA Special Projects Manager Ned Beecher, said PFAS consumed an estimated 50% of his time in 2019 and remains a major focus this year. NEBRA is a nonprofit organization that works on supporting and advancing the recycling of biosolids and other organic residuals across New England, as well as in New York and eastern Canada.

PFAS have repeatedly appeared in biosolids due to factors including their presence in the landfill leachate that enters wastewater treatment plants. Mounting backlash around the chemicals has led NEBRA to concentrate significant resources on addressing PFAS — offering members training and encouraging them to start conversations with customers and their communities, as well as lobbying government officials to rethink their approach to the problem.

Burke-Wells traced the timeline back to 2016, when the U.S. EPA adopted a non-binding public health advisory for PFOS and PFOA of 70 ppt in drinking water. In the time since, Northeastern states have been among the first to pursue stricter standards. Much of that has focused on drinking water, but wastewater is a growing target along with groundwater.

The state with the strictest approach to PFAS in biosolids is Maine, which issued a memorandum in March 2019 limiting levels of PFOS and PFOA in biosolids land application to 2.5 ppb and 5.2 ppb respectively — a level multiple experts said biosolids typically cannot meet. The move came after PFAS were found in milk from a Maine dairy farm, with land-applied biosolids the likely source, according to the government.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) subsequently required all of its sludge and biosolids program licensees and related composting facilities to test for PFOS, PFOA, and another chemical, PFBS. Reporting by The Intercept later showed all sewage sludge tested by Maine DEP contained at least one of those three PFAS.

The state offers a publicly available PFAS mapper featuring data pulled from the Maine DEP Environmental and Geographic Analysis Database. Documents obtained through a public records request show DEP’s actions impacted a number of facilities and remained a topic of discussion with sites and operators throughout 2019.

FOIA exchange on compost

In one July 25, 2019 email, DEP officials said 72 licensees were notified they needed to test for the chemicals. Those included 23 composting or processing facilities, approximately 84% of which had submitted data at the time of the email exchange. Of those, 13 exceeded screening concentration for both PFOA and PFOS, one for only PFOS and one for only PFOA, and one did not exceed for either.

Maine’s approach to PFAS in biosolids is part of the same reaction leading to scrutiny of PFAS in food packaging: proximity to food, and by extension human consumption. Some PFAS have demonstrated bioaccumulative tendencies and can remain in the human body. Around 60% of municipal biosolids are land-applied nationwide according to EPA, helping agricultural land through their nutrient-rich properties. PFAS have been found to accumulate in crops grown on that land, spelling long-term issues for biosolids stakeholders as tighter regulations become a reality.

At the heart of the issue are wastewater treatment facilities, which produce biosolids. “There’s no wastewater that doesn’t contain these chemicals,” NEBRA’s Beecher said. His organization has been focusing on communicating with lawmakers about drinking water and groundwater standards due to the “indirect impacts” NEBRA worries will stem from placing low limits on PFAS.

“When drinking water standards are set, they become groundwater standards, and then they make their way into wastewater treatment permits,” said Burke-Wells.

Broad impacts unclear as some see mounting costs

Assessing the financial impacts of PFAS for organics recyclers remains challenging and largely reliant on one-off data points specific to municipalities.

One example is Lapeer, a town in eastern Michigan, which was ordered to stop sending its biosolids to farms in 2017 due to PFAS contamination. The town now expects to pay around $3 million to have its waste treated at another facility, separate from its sewage treatment plant, and then shipped to a landfill. Other municipalities in states like Wisconsin and Maine have reported similar impacts as they struggle to address the problem.

NEBRA is in the process of assessing the broader costs and benefits of dealing with PFAS, a burden the group says is falling on municipalities and utilities.

An initial NEBRA survey in 2019 yielded several statements from wastewater treatment operators noting the price for their biosolids management had gone up between 50% and 200%. One member said it was landfilling residuals instead of composting them, while another said it was taking in less septage (the waste material removed from a septic tank.) Many of those surveyed included NEBRA members from municipal wastewater treatment facilities largely concentrated in Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. They shared concerns about regulations, public perception, and rising costs.

While only Maine has regulations on biosolids management with regard to PFAS, the prospect of similar standards has caused a number of wastewater facilities to make choices based on risk level and potential liability.

In Concord, New Hampshire, cost for sludge management has increased by half a million dollars. The city once paid a rate of under $50 per wet ton, but now pays over $100 per ton to send its biosolids to Canada as a precautionary measure, a heightened expense that comes during a time of tightening budgets due to COVID-19.

Biosolids land application in New Hampshire.
Resource Management

Other municipalities and wastewater treatment facilities have submitted testimony to lawmakers regarding estimated cost implications associated with regulations. In New Hampshire, the North Conway Water Precinct said the state’s limitations on PFAS could lead to more than $500,000 annually in costs to local ratepayers and taxpayers. Also in the state, the town of Merrimack estimated an increase of $2.5 million annually if PFAS force officials to find another source for wastewater sludge disposal, with costs rising “significantly more” if the town turns to incineration.

Outside of NEBRA, others in the industry are also seeking clarity on numbers. Bill Brower, a project manager with Denali Water Solutions, said his company recognized PFAS contamination as an “important area” to be monitored. A division of the company, WeCare Denali, operates organics recycling facilities including the Ann Arbor site where PFAS were discovered in compost.

Brower said he has contacted around 17 operations nationwide to inquire about PFAS impacts, many of which reported little if any change in business outside of internal discussions. Still, he connected an increase in public awareness to things like the 2019 movie “Dark Waters,” a Hollywood thriller about PFAS contamination, along with broader national discussion. Brower also noted regulations at a state or federal level could dramatically change the cost calculus for companies.

“If things did get tighter, then we would maybe have to make some different choices,” he said, adding that could lead to some organics headed to a landfill or an incinerator, with implications for the environment along with elevated costs. “There’s a trade off there that people need to realize. I don’t think it makes sense to go around incinerating all of the nation’s organics.”

A divide over regulations and focus

Virtually all stakeholders in the organics recycling space agree PFAS are a problem that must be addressed, but they differ over the best approach.

“What we’re seeing in the compost industry is the presence of PFAS in a wide variety of different composts,” said Craig Coker, a consultant and senior editor at BioCycle, who supports organics recycling companies. “But there’s no way to know [what that means.] There’s no epidemiological evidence showing us the connection between PFAS in compost, how compost is used, and potential environmental health and public exposure.”

Research on PFAS in organics recycling remains limited. How PFAS impact anaerobic digestion, for example, is largely unknown territory although at least one initial 2015 study found the presence of PFOS increased methane production long term and indicated the chemical may act as a metabolic uncoupler. It is also unclear whether completely removing PFAS from water or waste is possible, given their persistent nature in the environment and pre-existing products.

Environmental groups and many communities say a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for drinking water and similarly strong standards for waste sites are crucial to protecting the public. Those in the industry largely maintain the focus should be on phasing them out of production and laying the responsibility on manufacturers that introduced the chemicals into products and the environment.

“We do know phasing this out will result in reduced exposure,” said NEBRA’s Beecher. “At this point, it’s the only cost-effective method.”

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., is proposing a ban on PFAS in food packaging.

The Water Environment Federation, a global association of water quality professionals, maintains officials should stop PFAS at their source and the group has been in discussions with EPA about biosolids in particular. Companies are also trying to strike a balance.

Brower of Denali Water Solutions said his company was seeking to be “part of the solution” and supporting moves like BPI’s certification requirements, along with similar steps taken by the Compost Manufacturing Alliance. He also said PFAS should be addressed at the manufacturing stage and questioned the effectiveness of requiring a near complete ban on the chemicals in water sources.

“Some biosolids going out into the field [have a] lower concentration than what’s in our blood,” said Brower, a refrain many others in the space echoed.

Proponents of strict regulations say both approaches are necessary — cutting off PFAS production at the source, while also regulating their presence in water, food, and waste.

“It’s not an ‘either or’ issue,” said Melanie Benesh, a legislative and regulatory attorney with the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an advocacy organization with a major focus on PFAS. “We certainly have to think about ways to remediate, ways to get PFAS out of the environment. But we also can’t keep adding to all the pollution that’s already out there.”

EWG has found PFAS are persistent in biosolids, with no clear method emerging for how to solve the problem. Discussing PFAS in organics recycling more broadly, EWG Senior Scientist Olga Naidenko said more research is needed on the issue but that action at every level needs to be taken to avoid a health crisis.

“In the last few decades, we didn’t know that we had PFAS, now we know,” she said, adding “composters should be entitled to redress [but that] doesn’t mean that we should allow contamination of the food supply.”

Other stakeholders share that view. Jen Duggan, director and vice president of the Vermont chapter of the Conservation Law Foundation’s (CLF), said “both upstream and downstream solutions” are needed to address PFAS contamination. That includes banning them from production, but also ensuring standards for all media including drinking water, groundwater, surface water, sludges, and soils. Like others in the environmental space, she agreed chemical manufacturers should pay for cleanup costs. Two of those manufacturers, DuPont and Chemours, did not respond to a request for comment on the topic. A third, 3M, declined to do so.

Determining who pays and the scope of what they pay is largely in the hands of regulators and courts. Despite public calls for a national MCL for PFAS in drinking water, environmental groups and industry insiders say EPA has stalled on the issue. According to multiple sources, the agency has shied away from making a final decision even as it regularly touts its work on PFAS. A spokesperson said EPA’s Office of Research and Development is “currently studying multiple disposal techniques” for PFAS and referenced the agency’s PFAS Action Plan for examples of work EPA is doing to address the issue.

Congress is moving more quickly. Highlighting Ann Arbor’s announcement earlier this year, Rep. Dingell pushed for legislation that would ensure “unsafe, hazardous chemicals are not allowed near the food we eat.” Her bill, the Keep Food Containers Safe from PFAS Act, has yet to migrate out of the House Subcommittee on Health as of October. Similar bills are cropping up with greater regularity at the federal level, but stakeholders largely agree little movement is likely under the Trump administration, given its ties to chemical manufacturers.

A murky outlook

For now, how PFAS are addressed may be determined by states. Their chief focus is drinking water — New York finalized MCLs in drinking water for PFOA and PFOS this August, for example. But groundwater is becoming a bigger priority. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency proposed groundwater quality standards for certain PFAS in September, and Michigan’s new drinking water standards apply to groundwater cleanup criteria as well. The waste stream is also drawing more attention, with food packaging and biosolids part of a growing focus on PFAS contamination.

PFAS in food packaging draw scrutiny

States with passed or proposed legislation targeting PFAS in food packaging

On Jan. 1, 2020, San Francisco effectively banned fluorinated chemicals in compostable food service items, acting on the same timeline as BPI. Action is also occurring on the state level: in 2018, Washington state passed HB 2658, which directed officials to develop a rule banning PFAS in food packaging provided a safer alternative is available. Maine passed a similar bill, LD 1433, a year later. Other states and municipalities have also homed on the issue as it becomes more high profile.

Legislators and regulators are meanwhile beginning to require testing at many waste sites, including where biosolids have been applied to land. Vermont, for example, has considered a ban on the application of PFAS-laden biosolids. Kasey Kathan, an analyst with the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, said via email the state is aware biosolids contain PFAS and that “monitoring for PFAS in sludges, in groundwater at land application sites and within landfill leachate” will remain a priority.

Some states are meeting resistance in their efforts. In 2019, New Hampshire finalized its new Ambient Groundwater Quality Standards, which set MCLs for several chemicals including 12 ppt for PFOA and 15 ppt for PFOS. Several companies quickly sued the state, including the Plymouth Village Water and Sewer District and composter Resource Management. NEBRA later filed an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs.

After migrating to the state Supreme Court, the case was sent back to the lower court late this summer. It remains in limbo. But PFAS regulations are moving forward in New Hampshire — Gov. Chris Sununu signed an omnibus bill (HB 1264) in July reinstating the state’s drinking water standards. A $50 million loan fund to help defray millions in estimated costs for municipalities and utilities, including treatment and remediation efforts, was included in that bill.

Shelagh Connelly, Resource Management’s president, said her company joined the lawsuit last fall amid rising concerns about PFAS. The issue has cost Resource Management significant amounts in staff time and consumes around 60% of Connelly’s work. Resource Management has lost some contracts pushing half a million dollars as partners have expressed concern about PFAS fallout.

“We can never get to zero,” Connelly said, referencing the push for lower and lower standards for PFAS in water. Lawmakers should consider that such regulations are costly for municipalities and may come at the expense of infrastructure upgrades and other projects, she added.

Pushback in New Hampshire previews potential battles to come, as regulators respond to public pressure and industry stakeholders answer with litigation. It’s a lengthy trajectory for the biosolids world, and NEBRA’s Burke-Wells expressed concern about other impacts, like an increase in emissions if organics containing PFAS are sent for disposal.

“Sometimes you have to truck the materials [over] significant distances… there’s no easy answer,” she said. “We’ve gotta keep talking about it instead of rushing ahead with regulations.”

Duggan of CLF, however, said regulations aren’t coming quickly enough. “Even if we ban all PFAS today, the legacy contamination is massive and it will take decades before PFAS [are] removed from waste streams,” she said.

In the compostable food packaging world, BPI’s Yepsen is seeking to emphasize the environmental value of composting along with the real and deadly problems associated with PFAS. And while his organization has sought to be proactive, he said individual players in a vast supply chain can only do so much. A true answer to the crisis posed by PFAS, he believes, will need to involve a diverse group of stakeholders at every level.

“We did dive in with both feet, and we came up with some solutions,” Yepsen said. “But we’re only one part of the battle.”