Minnesota's ban on "forever chemicals" in food packaging will soon head to Gov. Tim Walz for his signature, meaning companies must find replacements for the compounds by January 2024.
For years, the man-made compounds have been used to stop food from sticking and prevent grease and other liquids from soaking into packaging. And while food packaging is just one route for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, called PFAS, to migrate into the environment, it is a highly personal one and the focus of a growing number of state bans.
"States have really been leading the way on this issue," said Melanie Benesh, a lawyer at the Environmental Working Group.
Benesh said the food packaging most at issue is coated paper products such as French fry containers, molded fiber or paper clam shells and soda and coffee cups. But even the gold tray under boxed bakery cakes contains PFAS, she said.
The chemicals, which Maplewood-based 3M Co. pioneered, have accumulated in the environment around the globe and are linked to a range of health effects including certain cancers, thyroid disease and reproductive problems. In Minnesota, the pollutants continue to leak from landfills, foul drinking water and contaminate lakes and streams.
Banning nonessential uses of PFAS, such as from food packaging, was an opportunity for limiting exposure identified in the PFAS Blueprint released earlier this year by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Now, food packagers in the region must respond.
And they will, said Jason Culotta, head of the Midwest Food Processors Association in Wisconsin, which represents companies in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.
"There's this period right now that we are in where that work is being done to come up with alternative substances," Culotta said. Culotta said his members were worried the Minnesota Legislature wouldn't allow them enough time to develop substitute packaging. But the 2024 deadline is "sufficient," he said.
But Tom Flanagin with the American Chemistry Council said the bans are a problem because there are no safer, cost-effective alternatives to PFAS. That leaves the food-service industry and customers in a "precarious situation" of not having the right disposable packaging for effective food distribution, he said, including takeout and delivery.
Tom Johnson, an organizer with Clean Water Action Minnesota, which worked on the legislation, said it's not that hard.
Food packagers are already adjusting to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's announcement last year of a voluntary phaseout of PFAS containing a certain alcohol, used in food packaging.
"They already have to go in that direction," Johnson said.
Minnesota has banned other hazardous chemicals in the past, he said, such as bisphenol-A (BPA) in baby bottles and sippy cups.
"Industry can and does make these transitions without too much of a headache," he said.
As long as companies are reformulating food packaging they could consider ditching other nonessential chemicals in it such as phthalates and bisphenols, Johnson said.
Johnson said the ban is for "knowingly" selling or distributing packages made with PFAS, to allow for small businesses, such as a food truck, that might not realize a product contains PFAS. They'll get warning notices, he said.
One goal of the PFAS ban, said Rep. Ami Wazlawik, DFL-White Bear Township, the ban's author in the House, is to ratchet up national pressure on the packaging industry. The state bans also bolster interest in the national ban Congress is considering.
3M spokesman Sean Lynch said the manufacturer advocates for "consistency in state policies that can help prevent the cost and confusion of a state-by-state patchwork of regulation."
Major companies have already been responding.
McDonald's, for example, announced in January that it was banning all PFAS from its packaging materials globally by 2025. Taco Bell, Panera Bread and several major grocery store chains including Trader Joe's are instituting similar phaseouts, said Benesh.
The Biodegradable Products Institute, the New York-based certifier of what is compostable, does not certify products with intentionally added PFAS.
The group's executive director, Rhodes Yepsen, said some opponents have expressed frustration with the attention to food packaging bans when PFAS are used so widely across industries and in so many everyday products, such as ski wax, cosmetics and waterproof fabrics.
"We have to start somewhere," Yepsen said.
Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683