PFAS: A clear problem for supply chain transparency
“Forever chemicals” in the supply chain can cause compliance issues, unless there’s better transparency.
Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of chemicals that have been around for a long time. Widely found in everyday items — from greaseproof paper to non-stick coatings and stain-resistant carpets — and in many pharmaceutical products and medical devices, PFAS are very useful but many are also toxic. They’re also slow to break down — hence them commonly being referred to as ‘forever chemicals’.
The regulation of PFAS isn’t something new — it’s been covered to some degree by regulations since its inclusion in the 2009 Stockholm Convention — but the scientific community’s understanding about the persistence of PFAS in the environment is relatively fledgling. As more information has come to light about the dangers of PFAS, a swathe of regulations designed to increase control and phase out of their use have emerged. These regulations can pose problems for businesses at all stages of the supply chain.
In this article, we’ll take a look at those challenges and provide some insight into what successful supply chain transparency looks like.
The Stockholm Convention is a great example of the types of legislation setting regulations for the use of PFAS. It covers action to reduce, restrict, or eliminate the production, use, and release of persistent organic pollutants. Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and its derivatives — all part of the PFAS family — have also been covered by the Stockholm Convention since 2009. Further PFAS were added to the Convention’s coverage in 2022.
Other examples of regulations covering the use, distribution and disposal of PFAS include:
- Laws about the registration, evaluation, authorization and restriction of chemicals (REACH) in the UK and European Union, which restrict the manufacturing, use, and marketing of PFAS.
- The US Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA), which places reporting and notification requirements on manufacturers, importers and processors of PFAS.
- Laws in Japan, including the Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (PRTR) Law, Chemical Substances Control Law, Water Pollution Control Law, and Soil Contamination Countermeasures Law.
Several US states are also introducing — or have already introduced — controls on PFAS, including soil remediation standards in New Jersey. The expectation is for jurisdictions around the world to continue to expand their legislative approach to the eradication of PFAS in the supply chain, in products, and in the environment.
Why is PFAS supply chain transparency so important?
While a lot has been done to regulate the use and spread of forever chemicals, some significant gaps in PFAS regulations remain. These include a clear and agreed definition of PFAS, and how to manage PFAS use when there is no obvious substitute. This is the case for many medical devices and pharmaceutical products. This demonstrates one area where there are still some real challenges for legislators and regulators.
However, there are also many challenges for the organizations that are covered by the regulations. One of the most challenging is a lack of information. How can companies comply with regulations if they don’t know whether they have PFAS in their products and process chemicals? Solutions like those provided by Enhesa can help to connect companies throughout the supply chain but the real answer is to instill and nurture complete supply chain transparency. Engaging with your supply chain is essential to gather information about what’s included in your products. Unfortunately, achieving supply chain transparency and engagement is often easier said than done.
Supply chain transparency is, however, essential to protect your business both now and in the future. Predicting the next PFAS will not be easy — but those who do so successfully will be one step ahead of the competition.
The challenges of PFAS supply chain transparency
We’ve found that there are three key issues that make PFAS supply chain transparency hard to achieve:
1. Time demands
Time constraints on suppliers, mixed with competing priorities, make it hard for suppliers to respond to multiple requests for information from customers, all in slightly different forms in a timely manner.
Suppliers understandably have concerns about confidentiality when it comes to sharing commercially sensitive information, such as formulations of products.
3. Clarity and understanding
Without clear supply chain transparency definitions, brands have to contend with misunderstandings about what’s needed from suppliers. Imprecisely-worded requests may make it harder for suppliers to respond — and potentially mean that the right information isn’t supplied.
Brands don’t necessarily know what to ask for from their suppliers, nor do they necessarily know how to assess the chemicals when they do get the information. They may have to coordinate requests for information across multiple parts of the organization to get buy-in, as well as manage and fit in with an internal chemical inventory system.
Brands also often lack dedicated staff to engage with the supply chain. They don’t want to do anything that will increase their suppliers’ costs or pressures. They may not even know who all the suppliers are: first-tier are generally straightforward, but it’s much harder to identify and engage with second-, third-, fourth-, and even fifth-tier suppliers. It’s fair to say, then, that engaging the full supply chain can be tedious and hard work.
These supply chain transparency challenges may seem insurmountable but — with the right strategy and tools — it can be achieved, no matter which stage of the supply chain you’re in.
Successful supply chain transparency
Supply chain transparency is the key to ensuring PFAS regulatory compliance. Our clients have seen a lot of success in achieving this when done in a way that fits for individual businesses.
Here are the main factors we’ve seen help our clients overcome PFAS supply chain problems:
- Corporate buy-in and investment in a supply chain transparency program.
- A fully documented program, setting out clear requirements for suppliers.
- Cross-team buy-in to the program.
- Brand commitment and a willingness to put in the effort on supply chain communication.
- Clear guidance on what information is needed, how to collect it, and how the information will be used.
- Direct brand access to supply chain partners.
This isn’t easy to achieve, but at Enhesa Sustainable Chemistry we’ve developed a five-step process to help you to achieve supply chain transparency.
Learn about our process
Find out more about our expert insights in achieving PFAS supply chain transparency with our whitepaper — The Importance of Supply Chain Transparency and Engagement for PFAS Tracing.