SB'24 San Diego is open for registration. Register early and save!

From Purpose to Action: Building a Sustainable Future Together
A Completely Different Definition of ‘Waste’:
5 Key Takeaways from the Sustainability Next Summit

Last month, Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics and Fast Company co-hosted the virtual summit to convene policy experts, industry leaders and innovators with the expertise and resources to drive real progress toward a circular economy.

We find ourselves at an inflection point for the planet, where we need innovation and collaboration across the sustainability ecosystem that can generate a suite of solutions as we drive towards a circular economy.

That’s why last month, Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics and Fast Company co-hosted the virtual Sustainability Next Summit — to convene policy experts, industry leaders and innovators with the expertise and resources to drive real progress. As Mura Technology CCO Oliver Borek recently shared on our panel together at the event, “Everyone occupies a certain part of the value chain ... so, you need to have these partnerships in order to make the whole [system] work.

Our largest sustainability-focused event was oriented towards two things: collaboration and solutions from a truly global lineup of 16 expert speakers — ranging from companies including PepsiCo and Unilever, to nonprofit organizations such as The Beijing Future Innovation Center and The Recycling Partnership, to Dow leaders including Global Sustainability Director Han Zhang — across four thought-provoking sessions.

For those unable to attend or those who want to revisit what you heard, here are my key takeaways and what they mean for our work at Dow and the broader plastics industry.

5 key takeaways from the Sustainability Next Summit

1. Partnerships power progress.

One point emphasized in all of the sessions is that we cannot operate in a vacuum — partnerships power and amplify progress, allowing us to achieve more than we ever could alone. One example is the Resilient Cities Network, which works with municipalities around the world to build urban resilience; another is the partnership between private industry and governments to establish waste-management frameworks. For Dow, these kinds of collaborative partnerships are fundamental to achieving our ambitious sustainability goals such as Transform the Waste. For example, our newly announced partnership with WM expands our supply of hard-to-recycle films from household recycled items through WM’s extended curbside recycling programs.

2. The future of waste is that it will no longer be viewed as waste.

Sustainable Cities panelist Jessica Long, CSO and Managing Director at Closed Loop Fund, said it best: “[In the future], we are going to have a completely different definition of the word ‘waste’ — waste will become things that literally have no value; as opposed to today, where waste is anything we throw away.” The vision of waste infrastructure within future sustainable cities is clear: Waste is viewed as a resource like water, an opportunity for ‘green’ job creation and a material that creates an income stream. By embracing this mindset, all waste can be repurposed, reused and its value captured; and only then will we achieve a fully sustainable circular future.

3. Building a sustainable ecosystem for plastics requires engaging a vast set of stakeholders — public and private.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and building a sustainable ecosystem requires bringing everyone in this network to the table — from cities to residents to businesses. David Carroll, Director of External Affairs for Plastics Europe, summarized this sentiment well: “What’s really key here is to be collaborative and also proactive … We need to create supporting and enabling policy frameworks.” This is true at the global level, too: By establishing global standards and rewarding innovation, we can bring more companies and organizations, large and small, into the fold. Local and state governments can facilitate the implementation of clear recycling policies and standards to encourage residents to recycle. By bringing the technical knowledge of industry leaders in terms of what is achievable for plastics policies together with the reach and influence of municipal leaders, we can develop collaborative and solution-oriented legislation to boost recycling rates and reduce plastic waste.

4. The future of recycling technology is not either/or, but all.

One key theme discussed during our session on recycling innovation was the need for both traditional methods and more advanced technologies. In order to successfully create a circular ecosystem for plastics, new recycling technologies such as advanced recycling must be scaled. However, traditional methods such as mechanical recycling must operate in tandem with new methods as capacity expands. As I discussed in my conversation with Oliver Borek, significant investments such as those Dow has made with Mura in Europe to scale advanced recycling capabilities are necessary to complement the abilities of mechanical recycling technology, creating a fully sustainable and circular system for plastics. And critical to processing that waste is collecting post-consumer material — something we are addressing through our work with WM, as pointed out during the same session by WM CSO Tara Hemmer. Only by driving towards innovation and embracing all types of recycling technology will our industry be able to meet demand for post-consumer material.

5. There’s significant opportunity in packaging and consumer goods to meet demand for sustainable choices.

As McKinsey Partner Jeremy Wallach pointed out, research shows a clear trend of consumers seeking out and even paying more for sustainable products. As more modern-day shoppers reach for sustainable products, there’s a market demand to meet them where they are in terms of how items are created, processed and packaged. CPG companies such as Unilever and PepsiCo have the opportunity to use innovation to meet customer demand in both packaging and production. On the Dow side, our work to build up recycling capacity allows us to create more post-consumer packaging materials for our customers to use in their products. And for consumer companies, considering the full life cycle of a product — from the value chain emissions to disposal — can go a long way in helping set the definition of sustainable packaging for consumers. Regardless of industry, reimagining the products we create to be more circular opens up massive economic opportunity to meet the demands of influential, sustainability-minded consumers.

I’m grateful to my fellow panelists and Dow partners for sharing these insights with us, and I’m looking forward to carrying these lessons forward as we build a more sustainable future for our brand and industry.

You can watch any or all the sessions from the Summit on demand here.

Realizing a circular future for plastics requires every stakeholder working together. That's why Dow is taking an innovative systems approach to identify the gaps, connect the best partners and disrupt how the world values, sources, transforms and monetizes plastic waste.

Reducing Carbon Emissions
Learn how reusable and recyclable packaging can help close the loop.

Design for Recyclability
Dow is creating sustainable solutions for food packaging