By Adam D. Link
Addressing big challenges, such as pervasive constituents like PFAS and microplastics, requires a multi-pronged approach that not only addresses the management of products already in the environment, but also confronts the addition of these products to the stream of commerce in the first place. This multi-pronged strategy requires organizations and local governments to work together, as well as educating consumers and national stakeholders.
California has been a leader in addressing some of these large challenges. Not only has California set an example that has been adopted nationally in some cases, but the lessons learned through the process can be a help to other state and localorganizations aiming to make changes.
This article shows how work in California to manage PFAS chemicals, microplastics, and wipes can be used as models and templates in other locations, and even nationally.
PFAS: A Proactive Approach to Addressing “Forever Chemicals”
No constituent has made more headlines and been in the public eye these last few years than PFAS. Per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (collectively referred to as PFAS) are a group of man-made fluorinated compounds that are used for a variety of applications by both industry and residential households. These “forever chemicals” are ubiquitous and commonly found in products as diverse as furniture, clothing, cosmetics, carpets, and cookware. While these chemicals have been in the stream of commerce for decades, scientists are now beginning to identify their harmful health impacts.
This year, the California Association of Sanitation Agencies (CASA) is sponsoring California bill AB 2247 (Bloom), an important bill that will help water and wastewater agencies better identify sources of PFAS entering their systems. The bill would require manufacturers of products that contain PFAS to annually disclose the presence of PFAS in their products on a publicly accessible database beginning in 2025. CASA is partnering with Clean Water Action and the Environmental Working Group to co-sponsor this legislation, which is a critical first step in reducing sources of PFAS in our waterways and environment.
CASA is also supporting California bill AB 1817 (Ting), which would impose a categorical ban on the use of PFAS in textiles, as well as previously adopted 2021 California bill AB 1200, which bans the use of PFAS in paper-based food packaging and requires a disclosure of toxic substances in cookware. The common theme in all these efforts is better product identification and source control efforts, helping to address PFAS before the stream of commerce and exposure pathways.
Beyond recent legislative efforts, CASA is working with California agencies and partners on other PFAS related activities, including the development of informational materials to properly contextualize the risks associated with PFAS to the public. CASA is also working with regulators such as the California State Water Resources Control Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to gather data on the presence (or lack thereof) of PFAS in wastewater influent, effluent, and biosolids. All these efforts are critical to better understanding the presence of PFAS in the environment and crafting an effective approach for the long term.
Microplastics: A Unique and Pervasive Constituent
Plastic pollution is a major problem in California and across the globe, and wastewater agencies are currently devoting significant time and resources to determining the best path to address this unique constituent. In particular, smaller plastic microbeads and microfibers are very difficult to filter out during typical wastewater treatment processes, and when introduced to the environment can harm marine life. The best way to ensure that these pollutants are not discharged into California waterways is to prohibit their introduction to the wastewater stream on the front end through better source control efforts, an approach which CASA and other agencies, have been supporting for years.
|In 2015, CASA sponsored California bill AB 888 (Bloom), which banned the sale of personal care products that contain plastic microbeads in commodities such as facial scrubs, soaps, and toothpaste. This was an important first step in addressing plastic microbeads, and an instance where there were natural alternatives available. The approach was eventually adopted at the federal level, culminating in the passage of the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which applied a similar ban nationwide.
In 2018, CASA again sponsored legislation to address microplastics, this time working with the California Ocean Protection Council (OPC) to support the development of their Microplastics Strategy. California bill SB 1263 (Portantino) directed the OPC to develop, adopt, and implement a statewide California microplastics strategy to increase the understanding of the scale and risks of microplastic materials on the marine environment, and identify potential solutions for dealing with microplastic pollution. That process is underway, and CASA continues to work closely with the OPC on this issue.
In addition to legislative action, more work on the technical side of microplastics management has been critical. CASA continues to partner with the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP), the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI), and others to identify more effective and efficient ways of identifying and quantifying microplastics in influent, effluent, and biosolids. Microplastics are ubiquitous in our
environment, yet there is insufficient data on standardized sampling methods, sources, and pathways to move forward with a broad solution to the problem.
Wipes: Taking Steps to Alleviate Impacts on Critical Wastewater Infrastructure
The sale and marketing of single-use “wet wipes” has increased significantly in the last decade, but has been a thorn in the side of wastewater collection systems for much longer. These products are often mistakenly flushed by consumers, and when wipes enter sewer systems, they cause major damage and environmental problems. One need only read the occasional news article about “fatbergs” in large systems to see how the accumulation of wipes and debris can become a huge and costly problem for local wastewater agencies. Unfortunately, there has been a serious inconsistency in wipes labeling, leading to consumer confusion. Adding to the impact of these products, most wipes contain some form of artificial microfibers, and when improperly flushed, also contribute to microplastic pollution.
In 2021, CASA sponsored legislation to address this pervasive problem: California bill AB 818 (Bloom). This bill establishes labeling requirements for wet wipes packaging so that Californians will know how to dispose of these products properly, and further requires wipes manufacturers to conduct education and outreach about the “Do Not Flush” symbol and label notice. This bill was the culmination of three years of work at the state level to develop and identify an approach to address wipes that included industry support and buy-in.
There is now a bipartisan push for a national standard on wipes issues, as Congresswoman Lisa McClain (R-MI) and Congressman Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) have introduced the Protecting Infrastructure and Promoting Environmental Stewardship (PIPES) Act, which would require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to establish standards for the flushability of disposable wipes. Companion bipartisan legislation has also been introduced in the Senate as the Wastewater Infrastructure Pollution Prevention and Environmental Safety (WIPPES) Act, S. 3956, a bill that would require the Federal Trade Commission, in consultation with EPA, to issue regulations on “do not flush” labeling requirements.
Lessons from the Trenches
Through our work on PFAS, microplastics, and wipes, we have learned a number of lessons about how to successfully advance important environmental legislation while getting buy-in from an array of stakeholders.
First, partnerships and ongoing dialogue are crucial to success. CASA has worked with the environmental community, industry stakeholders, and regulators at every stage of the process to develop a path that makes sense. Having an open dialogue and working together to identify areas of need has been vital to drafting and ultimately passing all these key legislative initiatives.
Start by taking small steps toward seemingly insurmountable problems. The global scale of plastic pollution, the ubiquity of PFAS, and the pervasive usage of wipes are all daunting, large-scale challenges that don’t have a readily apparent universal solution. We have found that the best approach is to take smaller, more manageable parts of the problem, try to develop consensus around those pieces, and use those elements to take incremental steps towards addressing the larger problem.
Having quality data is crucial. A good solution starts with high-quality underlying data, and gathering that data and properly contextualizing it for stakeholders and policymakers is critical to effective advocacy and identifying solutions.
Finally, reliable science and sound public policy take time to develop. There are no silver bullets, and when dealing with complex subjects like water quality, it can take years before you are able to wrap your head around the scope of the problem, let alone craft an effective solution. CASA’s flushable wipes labeling legislation didn’t pass until the third year it was introduced. CASA spent an entire year working with partners in the NGO community in a PFAS roundtable setting as we talked through concerns and developed the concepts that eventually became California bill AB 2247. However, if you put in the work, and keep moving the ball forward year after year, you can achieve impactful change on important issues.
About the author
Adam D. Link is the Executive Director for CASA. He has more than a decade of experience managing regulatory, legislative, and legal issues for the water and wastewater sector. He is responsible for leading the association and ensuring that CASA fulfills its mission of providing trusted information and advocacy on behalf of California clean water agencies. He holds degrees from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law.
About the company
The California Association of Sanitation Agencies (CASA) has served as the leading voice for clean water agencies on regulatory, legislative, and legal issues for more than 60 years. CASA represents more than 125 local public agencies engaged in the collection, treatment, and recycling of wastewater and biosolids, and its agencies are leaders in sustainability and utilization of renewable resources. Throughout its history, CASA has been proactive in addressing major issues facing the sector through legislation and regulatory actions.