Microplastics are the new PFAS

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Senior Director and Principal Analyst

Last month, 3M agreed to a settlement on water contamination from per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). It agreed to pay a minimum of USD 10.5 billion to U.S. water systems, which will use the money to remediate and test waterways for PFAS contamination. This settlement is just a portion of the liability that 3M faces related to PFAS, which could easily include another USD 10 billion or more for a wide range of claimants. These settlements (and others) will create a large PFAS remediation market and spur the growth of PFAS-free products, for which materials innovations are already beginning to emerge. The future trajectory of PFAS is fairly clear at this point. The real question is: What are the next PFAS? And who is the next 3M?

The most likely candidate is microplastics. The California State Water Board (which has been leading the charge on microplastics) defines them as particles of plastic (which may contain additives) from 1 nm to 5,000µm; there’s an exception for polymers that are derived in nature and have not been chemically modified. In practice, microplastics mostly come from a few major sources: the production of plastic products (in which plastics are often spilled or released), textile washing, tires, intentional inclusion of microplastics in products as abrasives or exfoliants (though this has been phased out in many countries), and the breakdown of plastic products. The California State Water Board adopted standardized tests for microplastics in the past year, which should increase the availability of data on this issue. In the press release announcing the tests, the Board drew a direct comparison to PFAS. There’s also been growing public pressure and awareness, with no shortage of high-profile stories and scary headlines. Perhaps most importantly, there’s a clear path to litigate this issue under the Clean Water Act in the U.S., and the biggest pushback from chemicals companies is that there’s been no clear links between microplastics and negative health effects. However, that might not matter — companies could be held liable under existing pollution statutes, even if no negative health effects are ever found. Formosa Plastics has already been held liable for releases of microplastics in Texas on the basis of the Clean Water Act. Costly remediation efforts could lead to large payouts for companies that are found liable, especially plastics producers and apparel companies. 

For more on policy surrounding materials of concern, check out the Lux Policy Compass for Chemicals which covers the evolving global policy landscape. 

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