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Breaking the PFAS Chain: Maine's Quest for Sustainable Alternatives
May 8, 2024


In the realm of environmental science and sustainability, researchers in Maine are pioneering efforts to combat the pervasive presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) by investigating alternative materials derived from tree pulp and seaweed. PFAS, commonly found in various consumer products and industrial processes, have raised significant concerns due to their persistence in the environment and potential adverse health effects.

PFAS represent a group of synthetic chemicals characterized by their unique properties, including water and grease resistance, heat tolerance, and durability. These attributes have led to their widespread use in various applications, from non-stick cookware and firefighting foams to food packaging and textiles. However, the potential environmental and health consequences of PFAS have garnered increasing regulatory attention in recent years. For instance, in February 2024, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that paper products coated with substances containing PFAS are no longer being distributed by manufacturers in the US market.

Against this regulatory backdrop, scientists and researchers at the University of Maine are actively exploring alternative materials that can replicate the desirable properties of PFAS without the associated environmental and health risks. One promising avenue of investigation involves harvesting tree pulp and seaweed to develop sustainable alternatives.

Maine’s abundant forests provide a rich source of raw materials for the pulp and paper industry, and researchers are capitalizing on this resource by investigating the feasibility of using cellulose derived from tree pulp as a PFAS alternative. Notably, cellulose-based materials offer several advantages, including biodegradability, renewability, and low toxicity. Preliminary studies have also revealed that cellulose-based materials can exhibit water and grease resistance comparable to traditional PFAS-containing products. By leveraging nanotechnology and innovative manufacturing processes, scientists aim to optimize the performance of cellulose-derived materials while minimizing environmental impacts.

In addition to tree pulp, researchers and companies in Maine are exploring the potential of seaweed-derived compounds as PFAS alternatives. Seaweed, abundant along Maine’s rugged coastline, possesses unique properties that make it an attractive candidate for sustainable material development. Scientists have noted that certain species of seaweed contain polysaccharides and other bioactive compounds that exhibit water-repellant properties, akin to those of PFAS. By isolating and modifying these natural compounds, scientists aim to create environmentally friendly alternatives for food packaging and coatings. In fact, native Maine company Everything Seaweed is already taking steps to test the bounds of this PFAS alternative. Founder Jessica Chalmers has revealed that Everything Seaweed is producing an alternative coating for food containers and wrappers. This innovative solution substitutes PFAS chemicals with refined biomaterials from seaweed, which remarkably absorbs up to 700 times its weight in water.

While the research into tree pulp and seaweed as PFAS alternatives shows promise, significant challenges remain on the path to widespread adoption. Scaling up production, ensuring cost-effectiveness and addressing regulatory considerations are among the hurdles that must be overcome. Furthermore, continued investment in research and development is essential to refine and optimize these alternative materials, ensuring they meet performance standards while upholding sustainability principles. Collaborative efforts involving academia, industry, and government entities will be crucial in driving innovation and advancing the transition away from PFAS usage.

Author Mikaela Barbour is an MG+M law clerk.