Fluoropolymers

What are fluoropolymers?

Fluoropolymers are a distinct subset of fluorinated polymers. They are polymers with fluorine atoms directly attached to their carbon-only backbone. With their unique physico-chemical properties, these speciality plastics are virtually chemically inert, non-wetting, non-stick, and highly resistant to temperature, fire and weather. Irreplaceable in many applications, their unique properties cannot be guaranteed by other polymers.

What are the properties of fluoropolymers?

Fluoropolymers have a unique set of properties and are:

Chemically inert

meeting the requirements for low levels of contaminants and particulates in manufacturing environments critical for the food and beverage, pharmaceutical, medical, and semiconductor industries.

Durable, stable and mechanically strong

in harsh conditions in a variety of sectors including but not limited to automotive, aerospace, environmental controls, energy production and storage, and electronics, as well as in technical apparel.

Stable

in air, water, sunlight, chemicals and microbes.

Biocompatible

non-wetting, non-stick, and highly resistant to temperature, fire and weather.

Why are fluoropolymers different from other PFAS?

According to the OECD, fluoropolymers can be defined as a type of PFAS. However, terms such as ‘PFAS’ or ‘fluorinated substances’ are very broad terms to group a family of over 4,700 chemicals, a definition based on their chemical structure and not their properties. Within such a large group, the chemicals have significantly varying properties and hazard profiles. As such, certain PFAS of concern such as PFOA and PFOS have been identified as a source of toxicological or environmental concern.

Although they can be defined as PFAS, fluoropolymers display different toxicological properties than certain other fluorochemicals in the PFAS family.

Commercially available types of fluoropolymers

There are fluoroplastics and fluoroelastomers. Both subsets are based on the same monomers and are structurally similar. Their main difference is the higher elasticity of fluoroelastomers, achieved through chemical cross-linking.

Fluoropolymers may be fully or partially fluorinated, linear or branched. All fluoropolymers are high molecular weight polymers with unique physicochemical properties that are distinctly different when compared to other PFAS substances.

Fluoropolymers End-of-Life Management 

Fluoropolymers can be safely and sustainably managed at end of life and make an important contribution to the European Union’s (EU) circular economy objectives.  

Prevention 

Consistent with the EU waste hierarchy through the enhanced durability that fluoropolymers provide they play an essential role in waste prevention. They make products more durable, reducing the need for frequent replacement and in doing so, the demand for primary materials, including critical raw materials. In circular economy terms, by maintaining the first-life use of a product, fluoropolymers play an important role in closing resource loops since refurbishment, remanufacture, reprocessing or recycling may require additional resources and or generate potential degrading of product functionality and/or material value1.  

When it comes to actual end of life, we know that in Europe approximately 84% of fluoropolymers end up in waste to energy incinerators today, while 13% are landfilled and 3% recycled2

Recycling and Reuse 

The FPG is committed to sustainable practices throughout the lifecycle of fluoropolymers. We recognise the importance of fluoropolymer recycling and have initiated research to build on existing reports that recycling of fluoropolymers is possible and should be increased3.  For some fluoropolymers and applications commercial recycling is already a reality. However, it should be noted that for some products and their waste-streams, e.g. sealants that are used in chemicals manufacturing and thus may be exposed to substances of concern, recycling may not be a viable end-of-life solution in practice. We believe that enhancing both reuse and recycling capabilities will contribute significantly to minimizing the environmental footprint of these materials. 

Incineration 

Incineration is an effective way of disposal under permit conditions. This has been demonstrated by recent studies4 and real-world data  which also confirm that PFAS substances of potential concern will not be released5 FPG recognises the importance of ensuring that incineration is carried out in compliance with stringent environmental regulations to minimize emissions and protect air quality. Additionally, incineration is preferred over recycling as a disposal method for applications such as medical implants, sealings or industrial filters, that are in contact with substances that could pose a hazard to humans or the environment and that could stay in the recycling loop. 

Landfill 

While landfilling is considered a last resort in Europe, in some cases it may be necessary for managing some fluoropolymer waste. A body of data6 and published literature7 demonstrates that waste from fluoropolymers like PTFE waste is safe to landfill. Fluoropolymers like PTFE and PVDF are insoluble in water, do not partition, are neither adsorbed/desorbed into soil nor sludge nor partition to air. Data also supports the stability of fluoropolymers like PTFE and lack of biodegradation to other PFAS, such as perfluoroalkyl acids8. In 2023, FPG commissioned a study on biodegradation of fluoropolymers to better understand their potential environmental fate and end-of-life management options. 

In conclusion, fluoropolymers can be safely and sustainably managed at end of life. The Fluoropolymers Product Group is dedicated to fostering comprehensive understanding of what happens at this phase of their lifecycle and to work on facilitating additional progress on further reducing the environment footprint of fluoropolymers. We are actively initiating research to further inform our strategies and actions and the contribution of fluoropolymers to the circular economy. 

Responsible Manufacturing

Since the 2021 adoption of the manufacturing principles, all Fluoropolymer Products Group (FPG) member companies are engaged in concrete actions related to fluoropolymer manufacturing practices.

FPG member have launched a new Manufacturing Programme for European manufacturing sites, providing concrete solutions to address legitimate questions and concerns about emissions generated during the manufacturing of fluoropolymers, which are essential for the EU’s green and digital transitions.

The industry-led initiative goes further than current European Union requirements, effectively setting the highest standards for fluoropolymer manufacturing worldwide. With this programme, FPG members provide concrete solutions to address legitimate questions and concerns about emissions generated during the manufacturing of fluoropolymers, which are essential for the EU’s green and digital transitions.

This programme includes a concrete commitment to minimize emissions of non-polymeric PFAS residues from polymerization aids to the environment from fluoropolymer manufacturing by the following FPG member companies: AGC, Arkema, Chemours, Daikin Chemical Europe, W. L. Gore & Associates and Syensqo.

FPG Manufacturing Programme


Footnotes:

[1] The durability of products – Publications Office of the EU (europa.eu)

[2] Fluoropolymer waste in Europe 2020 – End-of-life (EOL) analysis of fluoropolymer applications, products and associated waste streams https://www.ft.dk/samling/20222/almdel/euu/spm/49/svar/1951975/2698345.pdf

[3] Recycling and the end of life assessment of fluoropolymers: recent developments, challenges and future trends. Bruno Ameduri and Hisao Hori, 2023. https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlelanding/2023/cs/d2cs00763k

[4] Alexandrov et al., 2019; Pilot-Scale Fluoropolymer Incineration Study: Thermal Treatment of a Mixture of Fluoropolymers

under Representative European Municipal Waste Combustor Conditions. Gehrmann et al., 2023 [not published] https://echa.europa.eu/registry-of-restriction-intentions/-/dislist/details/0b0236e18663449b  RCOM part 94, submission 8521

[5] Gehrmann et al., 2023 (not published)

[6] Charles River Data: OECD105, 120, 107, 117, 122, 106, 121.

[7]McKeen LW. Environmentally Friendly Polymers, 2012. p255 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B978143773469010013X ; Hanford WE and Joyce RM. 1946. Journal of the American Chemical Society, Vol. 68 (10), p2082; https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/ja01214a062; Tuminello WH. 1999, in Fluoropolymers 2: Solubility of Poly(Tetrafluoroethylene) and its Copolymers pp 137-143. https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/b114560

[8] Charles River Data: OECD301B, 302C, 306, 301F (unaudited preliminary report), 301 Annex II, preliminary tests suggest that PTFE is photolytically stable so degradation due to exposure to sunlight is also not expected (unaudited preliminary report, OECD316).