Greenwashing and CBC #3: T-Fal Natura frying pan

Continuing from my previous post with #3 on the CBC Marketplace "Lousy Labels" greenwashing list is T-fal Natura frying pan.

As I mentioned last week, Marketplace is a 22 minute show and they did a 10-product countdown, giving them approximately 2 minutes per product, so they had to leave a lot of information out.

So, the T-Fal website claims for the Natura line that it's made from 100% recycled aluminium and the non-stick coating is PFOA-free, lead-free, and cadmium-free.

Marketplace says that PFOA is still used in the manufacturing process, and that it always has been not present in the final product, and that it likely causes cancer as well as being widespread in the environment. Also they acknowledge that 100% recycled aluminium is a good, environmentally friendly thing.

In looking a bit deeper on the T-Fal site, I found that most of the T-Fal non-stick products, not just the Natura line, have the same claims for their non-stick coating. The Natura's product differentiation is then the 100% recycled aluminium used in making the body of the frying pan.

One of the reasons that recycled aluminium is so much better for the environment than virgin aluminium, even when compared to other recycled metals, is due to the sheer massive amount of energy required to make aluminium metal from the ore, and the relatively tiny amount of energy to recycle the stuff. All the metals take a lot of energy to process from ore, but the ratio for aluminium is particularly impressive: it takes only 5% of the energy to recycle aluminium than to process from ore, to make the same quantity of metallic aluminium for sale. It also only takes about 10% of the equipment. So this particular recycling scheme is a no-brainer: recycling aluminium is way cheaper and easier than making new. It's entirely possible that T-Fal's other aluminium cookware has a substantial amount of recycled aluminium in it, but they haven't made a point of using exclusively recycled.

Regarding the coating, which is what Marketplace had an issue with, T-Fal claim that it doesn't contain PFOA, lead, or cadmium. Lead and cadmium were used in ceramic and glass type cookware, often in the colours and glazes, and may still be in some parts of the world. (White and yellow for lead, and yellow, orange, and red for cadmium, though both could be mixed with other things to produce different colours.) Lead is also allowed in the specs of some aluminium alloys, but not all, and has been found in aluminium cookware before.

PFOA itself was never intended to remain in the final product. It's used to make PTFE aka Teflon; on cookware, that process includes high temperatures in the final steps, which drives the PFOA off. PFOA is also used to help polymerize other poly-fluorocarbons, but PTFE is the one under discussion.

T-Fal says on their website that they use PFOA in production of the cookware, and also that it's entirely burned off leaving no trace in the final product, something they also say has been tested and verified by external labs. They also say that the label sticker is new but reflects what they'd been doing prior to introducing the sticker.

Tests of some PTFE-coated cookware show residual amounts of PFOA in a study from 2005, but there was no indication as to which brands they tested. Heating to drive off PFOA is known, and it is entirely plausible that the temperature and time of non-stick coating cure that T-Fal uses is set to drive off all of the PFOA.

That leaves one more claim: Marketplace said that PFOA is widespread in the environment, detected in our bodies, and likely causes cancer.

An assessment compiled by Environment Canada and Health Canada says that PFOA is indeed found all over the environment, and that there are no known sources of it other than human activity. It tends to be found primarily in the water, and in animals it concentrates in the blood, liver, and kidneys (the latter two due to their blood content). Interestingly, it doesn't seem to concentrate nearly as much in fish, even though fish live in the water where most of the environmental PFOA is found. It's very persistent in the environment, as nothing really knows how to break it down.

Toxicity testing shows that the amount humans (at least, humans who don't work directly with it in frying pan factories) are exposed to is orders of magnitude lower than the levels that cause the first symptoms. (Table 8.) Regarding PFOA causing cancer, it has been shown to increase the risk of liver tumours in rats, but one study says that the mechanism is one that doesn't even exist in humans, and another says that one of the effects of PFOA on human cells could potentially suppress cancer and that similar things which cause cancer in rates are used to treat humans—again with those different biochemical mechanisms.

The report concludes by saying that PFOA may be entering the environment at a level that may have an adverse effect on some of the creatures there, but that PFOA is not entering the environment at a level that is damaging to humans and probably isn't a human carcinogen. So while it doesn't seem to be hurting us, getting rid of processes that use PFOA, even if the stuff isn't present in the final product, would be a very good thing for the environment. It isn't what T-Fal has done, however; they've tweaked the process to make sure none of the PFOA gets through to the final product.

In case you're interested, a few other items where PFOA is used as part of production are: hoses, paints, grease-proof food packaging materials, water- and stain-resistant coatings of textiles (including carpets and upholstery), and personal care products.

So, for this one, I'm kind of torn. The recycled aluminium construction is very good; the recyclable pan, including the coating, is good; making sure the product itself doesn't contain once-common toxic substances such as lead and cadmium is good; and continuing to use PFOA in the production stage seems to be safe for humans, but isn't really good for the environment. I'd have to say that the Natura pan is much more eco-friendly than the rest of the T-Fal non-stick line, but that's due to the recycled aluminium, as nearly all their non-stick offerings use the same coating with the same health and environmental claims. How that coating compares to other non-stick pans would depend on how the others are made non-stick.

3M say they've found an altenative to PFOA for making fluoropolymers such as PTFE (as of 2008) which is less toxic and doesn't bioaccumulate (although it will persist in the water). DuPont say they've dramatically reduced PFOA emissions from their facilities and has developed a way to make fluoropolymers without PFOA (as of 2011).

I wonder if T-Fal is looking at these new processes at all.

Greenwashing series:
10: Raid EarthBlends Multi-bug killer
9: Sunlight Green Clean Laundry Detergent
8: Obusforme EcoLogic Contoured pillow
7: Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner
6: Eco Collection bath mitt
5: Vim PowerPro Naturals
4: Organic Melt ice remover
3: T-fal Natura frying pan
2: Biodegradable J Cloth
1: Dawn Antibacterial Hand Soap
Final thoughts

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