Acting now to curb PFAS contamination means you will not be scrambling when stricter controls are enacted. Being an early adopter may allow you to help shape the emerging technologies to best fit the unique needs of the landfill industry.
By Dr. John Brockgreitens
The waste industry is no stranger to regulation, but the emerging ones for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are especially challenging. With one of the strongest bonds in chemistry that does not break down naturally, PFAS have unique requirements for their detection, handling, and destruction. Thankfully, there are new practices and technologies being developed that could help the industry meet existing—and future—regulations of these “forever chemicals.”
PFAS are resistant to heat, water, oil, and corrosion, which is why about 15,000 PFAS compounds have been created since their introduction in the 1940s and used in products ranging from cookware to cosmetics to touchscreens. However, PFAS have been linked to liver damage, thyroid disease, obesity, fertility issues, and cancer. That is concerning since “forever chemicals” can be found in air, water, soil, and food virtually anywhere in the world. PFAS are so ubiquitous that they have been found in the blood of 97 percent of Americans.
More PFAS Regulation is Expected
The threats to environmental and human health have led to a flurry of regulatory and legal activity. Thankfully, much of this early regulation is addressing sources of PFAS to keep them from entering waste streams. There are a number of state laws that ban the use of PFAS in new products, with Maine leading the way with a ban on all products that use PFAS except in cases of essential use. In addition, the EPA recently released Effluent Guidelines Program Plan 15 (Plan 15), “to develop technology-based pollution limits and studies on wastewater discharges from industrial sources.”
In January, the EPA announced plans to revise effluent limitations and pretreatment standards for landfill leachate. The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) estimates that 1,241 to 1,407 pounds of PFAS is collected in leachate per year. The EPA continues to follow the path outlined in its PFAS Strategic Roadmap.
It can be hard to know what to do when studies are being performed and rules are being written but have not been passed. However, it is clear that federal PFAS regulations for the waste industry are coming. This allows time to prepare. A survey investigating how landfills in the eastern and northwestern U.S are adapting to impending regulation found that 72 percent are using offsite disposal, 18 percent complete onsite treatment, and 10 percent pre-treatment onsite and offsite disposal methods.
It is evident that one major hurdle in PFAS remediation for landfill operators is cost. Recently, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency conducted an extensive report on the statewide cost of removing and destroying PFAS compounds in waste. It estimated $77 million to $160 million to treat leachate, and $14 billion to $28 billion for wastewater over 20 years.
Such numbers can be paralyzing. However, there are management practices and new technologies available to help waste facility operators to cost-effectively reduce PFAS contaminants and comply with impending state and federal regulations.
4 Steps to Manage PFAS
I am going to focus on PFAS in water, specifically wastewater and leachate. Managing PFAS requires four steps: testing and monitoring, concentration, destruction, and validation of destruction.
#1: Identify the Nature and Scope of the PFAS Problem through Comprehensive Testing
Use compound-specific LC-MS methods and class-based methods such as the EPA’s adsorbable organic fluorine (AOF) draft method. Using both compound specific (targeted analysis) and class based (non-targeted) methods support a mass-balance approach to account for all fluorine before and after treatment. Such rigorous testing can detect all PFAS compounds, including short- and ultrashort-chain PFAS.
#2: Capture and Concentrate PFAS from Wastewater
You are probably familiar with methods such as reverse osmosis, foam fractionation, ion resins, and granulated activated carbon. However, new sorbents are coming to market that could be more effective and more efficient in filtering millions of gallons of water to make a few gallons of PFAS concentrate. Some of the new sorbents have a smaller footprint, faster empty-bed contact times, and higher loading capacity and can be used alone or retrofitted to work with existing capture systems.
#3: Destroy All PFAS Permanently
Incineration used to be the go-to choice for destroying PFAS-laden sorbents as well as other concentrated PFAS wastes. That method has fallen out of favor since a growing body of research shows that incineration actually spreads PFAS widely instead of destroying it.
Thankfully, there are several new PFAS-destruction technologies being developed. Five technologies that are especially promising are: supercritical water oxidation, hydrothermal alkaline treatment (HALT), electrochemical oxidation, plasma, and photochemical degradation. Supercritical water oxidation and hydrothermal alkaline treatment use hot, pressurized water; electrochemical oxidation and plasma-based water treatment use electricity; and photochemical degradation uses ultraviolet (UV) light to break the powerful C-F bond.
A proprietary photochemical degradation process was developed at the University of Minnesota and brought to market. The system can destroy more than 99 percent of all PFAS compounds, including ultra-short-chain compounds (C1-C3) within three hours.1 This UV system has a small footprint and operates at room temperature and atmospheric pressure, keeping maintenance and operational costs to a minimum. The process is very flexible and is being designed to be used in a batch or in a continuous mode. Best of all, the byproducts are free fluoride and carbon dioxide, which are both naturally occurring, nontoxic elements.
#4: Validate the Complete Destruction of PFAS Through Comprehensive Testing
Employing PFAS-destroying technology is not enough. You need to prove that all PFAS compounds, including short- and ultra-short-chain compounds, were destroyed by employing both targeted and non-targeted testing methods.
Act Now to Prevent Future Headaches
Plan 15 shows that the EPA is following its roadmap and further monitoring, and regulation is inevitable. PFAS destruction technologies are emerging quickly and now is the time to implement these technologies. Landfill operators should research which technologies can cost-effectively meet their needs to continuously monitor, capture, concentrate, and destroy PFAS.
Even with PFAS bans and promising technologies that can destroy PFAS, these “forever chemicals” are going to be with us for the foreseeable future. Future landfills should be designed with PFAS containment in mind, incorporating specialized liners that would prevent PFAS contaminants from leaching into the surrounding soil and groundwater, as well as collection systems to efficiently capture and channel contaminated leachate to a treatment area.
Finally, the lifecycle of a landfill continues even after it has been closed. It is important to plan how you will manage PFAS compounds after closure. Such a closure plan may include capping the landfill to prevent the escape of PFAS compounds and long-term monitoring.
Acting now to curb PFAS contamination means you will not be scrambling when stricter controls are enacted. And being an early adopter may allow you to help shape the emerging technologies to best fit the unique needs of the landfill industry. | WA
Dr. John Brockgreitens is Vice President of Research and Development for Claros Technologies, Inc. He leads market applications of closed-loop solutions for environmental toxins, such as PFAS and heavy metals, and advanced materials solutions for textiles. His accomplishments include nine publications, five patents, five scientific awards, and two federally funded grant programs. John was critical to agreements with the U.S. Navy and with a Japanese conglomerate to build PFAS-destruction systems. As a testament to his leadership in sustainable technologies and circular economies, John was recently selected to join the TechFounders International Accelerator Program based in Munich, Germany. For more information, contact Stacy Hanson, Senior Director of Marketing and Functional Materials at [email protected].
Claros Technologies, Elemental System.