Under mounting regulatory and financial pressure, 3M says it will end the manufacture of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and discontinue their use in its products by the end of 2025. But fluorochemical competitors say they will stick with the business, continuing their strategy of phasing out only the most problematic PFAS materials, such as polymer-processing aids.
3M’s move means that the conglomerate will cease producing all fluoropolymers, fluorinated fluids, and PFAS-based additives. Such products include polymers sold under the Dyneon brand, like polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF), and fluoroelastomers.
Overall, 3M generates about $1.3 billion in sales and earns about $200 million annually from the sale of PFAS products. However, the business represents a relatively small part of its overall sales, which were $35.4 billion in 2021. With the exit, the company expects to accrue financial charges of up to $2.3 billion.
“While PFAS can be safely made and used, we also see an opportunity to lead in a rapidly evolving external regulatory and business landscape,” 3M CEO Mike Roman says in a press release.
PFAS are known to persist in the environment and have been linked to harmful human health effects, including cancer. As a result, they are subject to increasingly stringent regulations, which 3M cites as a consideration for exiting the business. It notes that PFAS could face tough restrictions in Europe by 2025. And the US Environmental Protection Agency may place strict limits on PFAS in drinking water.
PFAS have been the source of numerous legal settlements and other expenses for 3M. In 2019, the company took $449 million in charges related to the chemicals. It made $142 million in PFAS-related payments in 2021.
Investors have been applying pressure as well. For instance, in September, a group of 47 investment firms that manage or advise on $8 trillion worth of assets called on companies to publish a phaseout plan for persistent chemicals such as PFAS.
So far, 3M is the only major fluorochemical producer planning a wholesale exit from PFAS. In fact, other firms have been going in the opposite direction, as some fluoropolymers, such as PVDF, become increasingly important in growing sectors such as lithium-ion batteries for electric cars. For example, Solvay and Orbia recently announced an $850 million plan to build an integrated PVDF plant in the southeastern US to serve the battery industry.
The most notorious PFAS are long-chain surfactants such as perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which had been used as processing aids for fluoropolymers. 3M announced a phaseout of PFOS in 2000.
Companies have been turning to short-chain PFAS molecules, which may carry fewer health risks. For example, hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid and its ammonium salt form the foundation of Chemours’s GenX technology. 3M has been using ADONA, an ammonium salt of 4,8-dioxa-3H-perfluorononanoic acid.
Solvay says it plans to phase out the use of fluorinated surfactants by 2026. “Fluorosurfactants used in the manufacture of fluorinated polymers are a challenge for the industry due to their toxicologic profile,” a Solvay spokesperson says in an email.
Similarly, the PVDF producer Arkema says in an email to C&EN that it phased out long-chain processing aids “years ago.” Most of its products, including all made in the US, are made without PFAS aids, Arkema says. It hopes to complete its transition to non-PFAS surfactants by the end of 2024.
Chemours says it is committed to fluorine chemistry. It points out that in 2018 it pledged to reduce emissions of fluorinated organic compounds by 99%. As of 2021, it had reduced them by 40%.
Scott Gaboury, chief science officer and the founder of the consulting firm Cogmium, points out that 3M is a large conglomerate that makes a host of consumer and industrial products, while its competitors are chemical companies more focused on fluoropolymers. “I never felt that 3M looks at the fluoropolymers line as strategically as a lot of other companies,” he says. “They don’t see the risk as worth staying in the business.”
Gaboury says many of the fluoropolymer products that 3M makes, like PTFE, are pretty “standard fare” that could be replaced with products from other firms. But some of them, like 3M’s line of fluorinated terpolymers and some of its formulated products, are unique and will be more difficult to substitute.