The shocking news that 3M Corp. will exit the production and sale of all PFAS-containing products by the end of 2025 is the most tangible impact to date on the rubber and plastic industry as the regulatory war on the "forever chemicals" marches forward.
3M customers prepare for PFAS departure
The St. Paul, Minn.-based firm is widely considered among the top three global suppliers of fluoroelastomer and fluoropolymer materials, and when it announced at the end of last year that it would leave behind its legacy of producing the per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) substances within three years, many of its customers were more than a bit startled.
3M, after all, has a long history in the FKM and FP arenas with its wide-ranging Dyneon family of materials, which find critical applications in such areas as medical technologies, semiconductors, batteries, phones, automobiles, aerospace, and oil and gas extractions.
The firm said its products are safe and effective for their intended uses, with company literature saying it offers more than 50 grades alone of its FKMs. The Dyneon business produces 180,000 metric tons of fluorine-based polymers per year, including fluoroelastomers, PTFE, fluoroplastics and polymer additives, according to the company website.
But 3M said it based its decision to walk away from all PFAS-related materials "on careful consideration and a thorough evaluation of the evolving external landscape, including multiple factors such as accelerating regulatory trends focused on reducing or eliminating the presence of PFAS in the environment and changing stakeholder expectations."
"Our strategy has been to actively manage PFAS within our portfolio and, in doing so, advance our environmental stewardship effort," John Banovetz, executive vice president and chief technology officer, said in a video statement on the 3M website. "PFAS continued to be essential for modern life and can be safely made and used. They are critical for medical devices, smart phones, automobiles, airplanes and even the green economy."
But at the same time, he added, 3M has always had the ability to apply its science to enter new markets, noting that the conglomerate left other markets and reshaped itself in areas such as its health care business.
"Innovation and evolution have been consistently part of our story, always working to build what's next for our customers and communities," Banovetz said. "Moving forward, 3M continues to be a global material science leader. Our innovation is more important than ever. It will be 3M technology that will find solutions to our customers' needs."
On its face, 3M is walking away from a business that brought in roughly $1.3 billion in 2022 sales with EBITDA margins of about 16 percent. Those numbers, however, are quite small in an overall scheme of a materials giant that posted total revenues last year of $34.2 billion. It said it expects to incur total pre-tax charges of about $1.3 billion to $2.3 billion, with about 70-80 percent of that non-cash.
"Looking at 3M as a conglomerate, I don't think FKM was a big mover for them," an official at one custom mixer told Rubber News. "Obviously, they make a lot of money off of it, but I don't think it was a priority. I do think we were a little surprised that they were completely exiting. And the other surprise is that they're not selling the assets or the technology, so they're not looking to divest that at all."
Further, a number of sources in the rubber industry said it was their belief that 3M, which plans to close the FKM and fluoropolymer businesses rather than sell them to another party, wanted to limit future liability on something that already proved costly.
Just in June, for example, 3M reached settlement agreements with public water suppliers throughout the U.S. in which it will pay more than $10.3 billion over the next 13 years to assist with PFAS mitigation efforts. It also is party to a range of other legal actions.
While 3M has pledged to help its customers throughout the transition and meet its contractual obligations during that time, the firm said it "will continue to remediate PFAS and address litigation by defending ourselves in court or through negotiated resolutions, all as appropriate."
3M customers for fluoroelastomer and fluoropolymer materials are relieved the vendor gave a full three-year notice of its exit, but cautioned that the time is now to start seeking alternatives. There are some grades that easily can be replaced by competitor materials, but many of 3M's lines, they added, were specialty materials that only it supplied, so testing and validation of new materials can be a long process, ranging anywhere from 12 to 36 months.
"I think it's a pretty substantial impact," said Bobby Rathbun, president of high-end custom mixer Pinnacle Elastomeric Technology. "They supply a lot of fluoropolymer into the industry and somebody needs to pick up that slack. We'll see where that goes."
Technical Director Tony Furio said Pinnacle is working with its customers that use 3M polymers to go through redevelopment using other materials.
"Right now, I probably have well over a dozen active projects for reformulations," he said. "Depending on the market segment that these are going into, the testing can be anywhere from a quick two-week test all the way to a year-plus."
Automotive and aerospace are the big markets where the re-validation timeframe can easily expand, according to Furio. "Automotive has to go to the OEMs to get the approvals, and it can be very time consuming to make any change when you're talking about something on that scale," he said.
3M has given sufficient time to make the transition, Furio added. "We've been urging our customers to take this seriously and to begin this recertification and reformulation process as soon as possible. I think a lot of our customers are comfortable with that pacing."
Ellen Clunk, chief procurement officer for Hexpol Compounding Americas, said 3M's announcement hasn't made a major impact as of yet, but that's partly because the FKM market has been dealing with force majeure and other allocations for least 18 months — both from 3M and a number of the other major suppliers.
Plus, 3M still is producing and Hexpol has continued to receive its allocated volumes at this point.
"But now that they're exiting, you're having customers starting to look at what alternates can we use," Clunk said. "Who can supply us an alternative, because if I have a customer who comes to me and says I need you to replace all of my 3M with a Solvay polymer, it's going to be difficult."
Hexpol deals with the major fluoroelastomer suppliers on a direct basis, and much of the FKM materials are customer-specified, highly engineered products, she added.
"These are coming from OEM requirements, saying this is the formulation and it needs to be a Viton. Or it needs to be this 3M polymer," Clunk said. "We do have our technical teams who have gotten a lot better at finding alternates, especially through some of the supply chain issues."
But with 3M exiting, it's vital for Hexpol to devise a plan along with its customers that once the 3M supply is gone, they can easily step in and provide solutions. And it's a lot more complex than if it were a material such as carbon black, and a substitution from another supplier could just be dropped in.
"A lot of the 3M materials, I don't want to call them custom, but they're very specific to an application, so it's even more difficult to find these solutions," Clunk said.
Ever since 3M made its announcement, Hexpol has been working to bring customers up to speed and nudge them into acting sooner rather than later. The Hexpol official said the world's top custom mixer anticipates it will receive less supply from 3M in 2024 and even less in 2025 as 3M looks to wind down its role in the market.
"I will say 3M has been very good to work with when talking to some of their senior management within the fluoro group," Clunk said. "If we need something, they're working with us to find solutions to keep our customers happy through this whole allocation process. So I don't foresee them waking up one day and saying we're not going to do this anymore.
"There's been a lot of advance warning. It's not great that they're exiting, but they'll always tell us that they'll work wit;h us, and they've proven that they will."
Trelleborg Sealing Solutions is a 3M customer, and sees the supplier's pending exit as something that will cause operational challenges, but isn't a fundamental crisis, according to Konrad Saur, Trelleborg's vice president of innovation and technology, as well as head of the firm's global PFAS task force.
Some capacity shortage is likely short term, and this will impact such end markets as semiconductors, where growth is strong and FKMs are a key material. Trelleborg, he added, has multiple sources for some of its fluoropolymer needs, but that's not the case for all of its materials.
"In some high-end specialties where our materials are solely based on 3M compounds, this is where we would need to go through the entire revalidation and reapprovals with our customers," Saur said. "Some of our customers buy from 3M directly, so we are not the only ones facing that challenge.
"And 3M played fair. They announced it early enough to give everybody time to react. I think 3M made it very transparent and gave everybody a chance to respond. We would like to have two years more, but it is something that we could work with."
Ryan Fleming, director of Freudenberg-NOK Sealing Technology's materials technology, corporate technology and innovation, said the rubber product firm is starting work to eliminate 3M from its supply base. "After the end of this year, I think it's probably going to get pretty dicey to get any kind of consistent supply from them," he said. "Our supply chain [team] has definitely been working to procure what they can in the meantime, and then eventually transition to other suppliers."
And as 3M does leave the fluoroelastomer and fluoropolymer arena, the revised playing field is starting to take shape.
Chemours Co. and Solvay SA — the other two firms seen as part of the top three global players in FKMs — both appear committed to continuing to supply the markets going forward. Each has taken steps to phase out the use of fluorosurfactants from its manufacturing processes, which are the "PFAS substances under the most intense spotlight," Solvay said on its website.
Solvay in 2021 discontinued the use of fluorosurfactants at its U.S. facility in West Deptford, N.J., and plans by 2026 to manufacture nearly all of its fluoropolymers worldwide without the use of fluorosurfactants.
Wilmington, Del.-based Chemours last year introduced a sustainable process to produce Advanced Polymer Architecture-grade Viton-brand fluoroelastomers without the use of a fluorinated polymerization aid. The firm said it now has the capability to produce its entire Viton FKM portfolio using a non-fluorinated surfactant.
Frenk Hulsebosch, Chemours global technical director for its Advanced Performance Materials, said when a key player like 3M leaves the market, it will impact the supply situation.
"I think we as Chemours are fully committed to this industry," said Hulsebosch, who has been on special assignment since February to lead the firm's PFAS response team. "We are committed to these products. We know they are safe. We know we make them in a responsible way.
"If companies are exiting this space because of the uncertainty the regulation creates, it will have an impact."
But just who will pick up the volume 3M is abandoning is less clear, particularly given the uncertainty with the increased regulatory pressure suppliers are facing with the restriction proposal the European Chemical Agency has proposed that, if adopted as is, would lead to the eventual ban of roughly 10,000 PFAS substances.
One potential source is India's Gujaret Fluorochemicals Ltd., which has added fluoroelastomer capacity almost constantly since entering the FKM market roughly five years ago.
Brian Barkes, director of sales and marketing for the material supplier's GFL Americas LLC unit, told Rubber News that in May 2022 he gave a presentation to his managers in India where he questioned whether 3M would stay in the market.
"It just seemed like everything was pointing in that direction," Barkes said. "We see this as a big opportunity. ... People are coming to us and we're also reaching out to others, now that we have product. We're telling them that supply is not going to be a problem."
Hexpol's Clunk said the major suppliers aren't rushing out to add new capacity to make up for the eventual material shortfall, and that companies from China and India may be the best options for new sources. She said Hexpol has worked with GFL and the materials have performed well.
"If we're looking for new volumes, I think [Indian and Chinese sources] are our best chance of getting supply lines out," Clunk said. "It's not our only chance. We've been fairly successful getting the volumes we need, and we should be able to get a little bit extra from some of the others. But if we need something significant, I would say GFL is going to be our best option."
Rathbun said Pinnacle also has "enjoyed a great working relationship with GFL over the years. We're excited about their growth and future in the fluoropolymer industry."
He added that the FKM mixer has commitments from all the suppliers they are working with in redevelopment that they will be able to supply Pinnacle. "We have really good relationships with all the FKM polymer companies. It hasn't been as difficult as we originally thought, but it's just a time thing," Rathbun said.
The top advice those in the industry give is for users not to wait too long to start the transition away from 3M, particularly with applications that will require a long validation period.
"I think the key is to be systematic about it," Clunk said. "We're partnering with our customers and we just need to keep moving along. We can't put our head in the sand and say it's not happening, because it is.
"And I think some customers may need pushed a little bit. We tell them and they say it's 2025, but we say that means you need to do something now. I think a lot of technical people look and say, 'I've got time.' But you're going to run out of time."
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