Who’ll Stop the Rain?: the road to a biobased fix for carcinogenic PFCs

July 10, 2016 |

BD TS 071116 biobased smThe front line for the biobased materials industry — long-rumored to be the halls of Washington of Brussels, or formulation laboratories around the world  — may well be the short stretch of Planet Earth between your car and your house.

According to a recent survey undertaken at UC-Berkeley’s Haas Business School, that’s overwhelmingly the point in time where you use a raincoat, and access that useful yet mysterious product attribute — waterproofing.

And therein lies a tale of the advanced bioeconomy, the giant outdoors retailer Patagonia, and firms like Beyond Surface Technologies, NikWax, Voormi, and Ventile.

Last year, news arrived that Patagonia’s venture arm, charmingly named $20 Million & Change, had invested $1 million in Beyond Surface Technologies, in search of a bio-based durable water-repellent. So the biobased question of 2016 may well be, as Creedence put it, “Still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain?”

As this case study put it

This case study examines the tensions that arise when Patagonia simultaneously pursues sustainability and quality objectives embedded within its mission statement to “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” Specifically, this case study focuses on Patagonia’s Durable Water Repellent (DWR) problem–DWR is a highly effective chemical treatment used to waterproof jackets (supporting the quality objective) but has by-products that are toxic and persist in the environment (undermining the sustainability objective).

Bottom line, companies are seeking a route out of using PFCs without sacrificing performance — and with the newly revised Toxic Substances Control Act, EPA is said to be targeting these molecules — found in carpet fibers, packaging and well as rain gear — for early action.

Three routes around the PFC

Like the elite ascents attempted on occasion by Patagonia customers, there are several routes around the use of 8-carbon PFCs and the associated risks posed to human health. One, that’s the afore-mentioned C6 molecules. Nikwax cautions:

Are C6 PFC based fluorocarbon water-repellents proven to be entirely safe? No.  C6 based fluorotelomers will degrade and biodegrade to PFC acids in the same way as C8 fluorotelomers. Although the ultimate biodegradation product, PFHxA, may be less dangerous to humans and the environment than PFOA, it is still potentially dangerous. Furthermore, PFHxA is only one of a group of chemicals which will result from the biodegradation of C6 fluorotelomers. As well as PFHxA, fluorotelomer acids – bigger chunks of broken up fluoropolymers – will be produced in the biodegradation process. 

Yikes, and that’s the non-technical explanation. No wonder consumers find it confusing.

Another solution is biobaded DWRs. That’s where Patagonia’s $1M investment and Beyond Surface Technologies come in. They have a miDori family of products — three levels of them. One, the orange label, reflects a less intensive process, saving water and electricity. The blue label reflects up to 75% in biobased content and the green label indicates a 75%+ biocarbon content.

The company reports:

BST and its partners TWE and HeiQ have developed an oil-absorbing, water repelling, nonwoven fabric for oil relief efforts called Oilguard. The product is intended for beach protection against oil spills and is applied to the shoreline. The Oilguard fabric is up to 6 yards wide and several hundred yards long and uses selective absorption technologies. This allows for the fabric to absorb crude oil yet repelling the seawater.

Now, they’re working on a Durable Water Repellent technology that’s sustainable and affordable. Stay tuned for more on that.

Performance fabrics and Voormi

What’s Voormi? Think water-repellent wool. As Tim Romano wrote in Field and Stream, “This water-repellant wool hoodie may be the warmest (and most comfortable) lightweight thing I’ve ever worn.” And Midcurrent hailed it as the “Warmest and most breathable wool on the market.” The company touts that its products are “Wholly manufactured in the US, and produced exclusively with our own proprietary fabrics, we’re working hard to push the performance limits of fine micron merino for the high elevation backcountry environment of our own backyard.”

Waterproofing via the weave

Another way to achieve waterproofing — well, think of how animals do it, via the density of the weave of their fur and from the ability of fibers to swell up when wetted. You get a natural product that is windproof and waterproof, breathable and durable.

Ventile is a performance cotton and its fabrics are marketed under the EtaProof label by the Swiss firm Stotz, among others — making a product similar to that used by the British armed forces in the Second World War. Applications include linings for immersion suits, light coats, rugged shirts, jackets, coats, down jackets, ski wear, hats, shoes, and the original army type for immersion suits.

Ventile Fabrics offer 100% cotton woven into a very dense Oxford weave, using up to 30% more yarn than conventional woven fabrics. VF says the fabrics are “waetehrproof, windproof,. breathable, comfortable, durable and quiet.

Beyond the factory-level application of a DWR

So, there are alternatives to chemical coatings, but most clothes that offer waterproofing are of the Durable Water Repellent coating type. But, what happens after the coating wears awa? Time to ditch the jacket?

No way, says Nikwax. “Breathable waterproof items always come pre-treated with a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) coating that prevents the absorption of water into the material. Through use DWR wears away and that is when Nikwax Waterproofers are needed to replenish DWR. Additionally, Nikwax Waterproofers improve the water repellency of fabrics, such as fleece and cotton, which often come with no factory applied DWR.”

Do consumers really care? Is there a green premium?

Well, not exactly. This survey from UC-Berkeley found

“The majority of consumers are not aware of what their rain jackets are made from, are uninformed on the effects of PFC usage, and are unaware of what the term ‘PFC’ means. 70% of consumers report the maximum they are willing to pay for a raincoat is $70-$180…[and] they are not willing to budge outside of their price range.”

The Bottom Line

We talk about consumer education — that begins with customer engagement, and connecting consumers and manufacturers to a shared, positive outcome. For example, this team from the Haas School, recommended that Patagoinia create a “Timestamp Crediting Program. This will cause the value of a jacket to increase with time, increase Patagonia’s connection throughout the product’s life, and reduce landfill impact.”

The same team also encouraged Patagonia to make a timeline commitment such as “removing all PFCs from production by the end of year 10.”

Will a change in durable outerwear radically change our environment and outcomes for human health? Not until all PFCs are phased out., But here’s an example where customer desire for quality and sustainability has galvanized manufacturers — and that’s a commercial-based driver for transitioning to biobased alternatives that’s at least as powerful as any action by the likes of EPA to ban the use of traditional perfluorinated compounds.

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