The container used to hold this lobster roll -- a boat -- could contain toxic PFAS chemicals. In 2019, the Maine Legislature gave the Maine Department of Environmental Protection the ability to ban the use of these products if alternatives are available and affordable. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

State environmental officials should know more by the summer about how widespread food packaging laced with forever chemicals is in Maine and what alternatives are out there to replace them. 

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is seeking a firm to analyze the market for food packaging that does not include forever chemicals, or PFAS, that historically have been added to a wide range of products that also include waterproof clothing and non-stick cookware.

The goal is to determine how widely available PFAS-free alternatives are and if they’re available at a comparable cost to traditional products as Maine implements a ban on most products with PFAS that takes effect in 2030.

The Department of Environmental Protection began to seek proposals for the study in February. The bidding process will close in the coming days.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has allowed certain PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — to be used in products that have contact with food. The chemicals are commonly used as a non-stick treatment because of their grease-, oil- and water-resistant properties, according to the FDA. But the chemicals also pose long-term environmental and health risks. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classified a common kind of PFAS as a carcinogen in 2017.

The analysis the state is requesting is an outgrowth of a 2019 law that directed the Department of Environmental Protection to eliminate PFAS from food packaging sold in Maine. The Legislature then passed a broader ban on the sale of products with PFAS in 2021. That law requires any manufacturers that sell products in Maine with intentionally added PFAS to notify the state starting Jan. 1, 2023. 

While the 2019 legislation allows the state to ban food packaging with PFAS, its ability to do so hinges on the availability of alternatives “at a comparable cost,” according to the law.

The analysis will focus on wax-coated alternatives for wrappers and liners, clay-coated and reusable alternatives for plates and food boats, and uncoated alternatives for pizza boxes. 

It’s hard to say how widespread the use of packaging with PFAS is in Maine, but the state’s moves will lead to a better understanding, said Christine Cummings, executive director of the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association. 

“Something that I’ve been keeping on my radar is that [request for proposals] and the work and conclusions of the market assessment,” she said. “We’ll certainly look to be an engaged stakeholder in that process as that information is shared.” 

The work being done in Maine to combat PFAS is significant, and Maine is a leader in that fight, Cummings said. The analysis is an example of that leadership, she said. 

Recently released data on the presence of PFAS in liquid runoff from state-licensed landfills are one show of how common forever chemicals have been in food packaging. Runoff from the special waste landfill run by Twin Rivers Paper Company in Madawaska — which produces food packaging and last year unveiled a PFAS-free line of packaging — had the highest concentration of PFAS of any landfill in the state during a first round of required testing for the chemicals last fall. 

The final report from the market analysis is expected by July 1, according to the state’s request for proposals.

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Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is a reporter covering Old Town, Orono and the surrounding areas. A recent graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he's worked for Vermont Public Radio, The...