Diving letter:

  • A recent “State of the Art” report from the EPA’s Office of Research and Development calls for more research on PFAS in compost and digestate, and says there are too many unknowns at the moment about how the chemicals show up in such materials. The report, which is intended to “inform decisions about the disposal of food waste”, summarizes the available research results on PFAS and other chemical contaminants found in food waste, hay and manure used for compost and anaerobic digestion.
  • Composts made from a variety of materials have varying levels of contamination, the report said. It is believed that biosolids have the highest concentration of PFAS, followed by food waste and then garden waste, the report said. Both the EPA and organic experts say a major source of PFAS in compost comes from packaging.
  • Organic and compost trading groups say the report unfairly questions their sector and incorrectly characterizes some of the data in the report. Instead, more should be done to appeal to PFAS manufacturers and manufacturers of packaging and products known to contain the chemicals, said Frank Franciosi, executive director of the US Composting Council.

Dive Insight:

It is well known that compost and biosolids can contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and experts have looked into this how to use the contamination while waiting for state, local, and federal regulations that they hope will contain the substances in the future. Composters say the report highlights what they already know: that the information available is not enough to give a full picture of the problem, and that companies and lawmakers must do their part to contain such chemicals as scientists do more research.

“This problem is caused by the companies that made these eternal chemicals. There’s something to eat PFAS in it, but the report also shows that it can appear anywhere, so how can we control that? We don’t have a simple answer to that. ” Franciosi called. “Our position is, we follow the flow where the [PFAS] started and go upstream first. We have to fix upstream problems and at the same time gain more scientific knowledge behind them. ”

The EPA says it is encouraging food waste recycling because it reduces methane emissions in landfills and helps the agency achieve its goal of reducing food loss and waste halved by 2030, but his report also raises concerns about unknown factors related to compost contamination such as PFAS, Plastics and pesticides. The EPA also has a separate report on Plastic pollution in the compost.

According to the report, different types of PFAS contamination can have different effects on health and the environment. When present in biosolids, the report states, “PFAS can be absorbed by plants and crops and / or enter groundwater that can be consumed by humans and animals or used for agriculture.” The EPA could not, however Collect enough data from the “available literature” to determine the effects of contamination of compost and digestate from food waste.

Composters that handle food waste believe the main source of PFAS in their facilities is packaging waste, and the EPA report highlights a study showing that PFAS levels were higher in composts that contained compostable food packaging than in those without. However, the EPA acknowledges that there is “limited data” on this issue.

The Institute for Biodegradable Products (BPI), which certifies items including biodegradable packaging, disagrees with how the EPA characterized the study that compared composts with and without compostable food packaging.

“The study looked at municipal organic waste streams that generally have food packaging, not specifically compostable packaging,” said Rhodes Yepsen, Managing Director of BPI, in an email. “This is an important difference as today only a fraction of food packaging is certified as compostable and only one type of certified compostable article (molded fiber) has ever had PFAS, while other articles use compostable biopolymers to provide fat and moisture barriers.”

In 2020, BPI Certification discontinued Compostable food packaging known to contain PFAS should “result in decreased PFAS levels in food waste,” according to the EPA report. Some composters have stated that they will not accept compostable food packaging.

Sally Brown, a research professor at the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, said the report missed the important steps needed to reduce and eliminate PFAS in the environment. She argues that more needs to be done to eliminate PFAS at the source rather than starting with compost.

The EPA has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Some PFAS chemicals like PFOA are no longer used in the United States to make certain items like fire retardant products, and United Nations regulators voted in 2019 to ban PFOA from human blood levels, “so banning the compounds really works “, she said. However, other PFAS chemicals are still used in everyday products such as cosmetics. “It is a real question whether they are necessary. How much would your lipstick suffer if it wasn’t on? ”She said.

Some manufacturers voluntarily switch off certain products PFAS from food packaging. In January, McDonalds announced it would remove everything PFAS-containing packaging by 2025. The company estimates that 7.5% of its packaging still contains added fluorinated compounds worldwide.

There are currently no standards for PFAS in ready-made compost or digestate, but the EPA report mentions that state and local guidelines banning PFAS in food packaging have become more prominent in recent years.

Maine, Vermont, Connecticut and Minnesota passed legislation that year banning or phasing out packaging containing PFAS. New York and Washington also have similar laws. At the signing of his state bill in July, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont called Minimizing the future release of PFAS into the environment is an important way to protect people from the health risks posed by PFAS.

At the federal level, too, the legislature is working on the PFAS Action Actwhich would set a deadline for the EPA to label certain PFAS as hazardous substances and to impose a moratorium on products containing new PFAS. Some lawmakers have urged EPA to speed up their regulatory process to avoid a “patchwork of regulations” that they say could lead to confusion or uneven environmental protection.

Although PFAS is a major EPA concern for compost contamination, the report also includes information on contamination from other sources, such as persistent herbicides. It is said that food waste is not a major source of these herbicides in compost, but leaves, grass, and manure are at higher risk from introducing these chemicals.