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Designing for Humanity:
New Possibilities for Plastic

Ensuring recyclability starts with putting people at the forefront to develop new systems and materials to create a continuous lifecycle for plastics. We need to design systems for humanity. By harnessing design thinking, it’s possible to make human-centered recycling systems a reality.


This weekend, we recognize World Environment Day (June 5) to raise awareness and action around protecting our ecosystems from waste, pollution and more. Yet, materials such as plastic could be unlikely allies for creating a more sustainable world for people and planet. Here, Dow’s Global Sustainability Director, Haley Lowry, shares how design thinking can pivot people from seeing plastic as a problem to viewing it as a dynamic, recyclable material with countless possibilities.

Recycling is complicated. A complex web of value chains, local governments, and informal and formal economy players often makes recycling a confusing system for many people.

Yet, people are the cornerstone of making the recycling system work. Consumers are the catalysts for driving the increased demand for recycled goods, as well as ensuring there is enough recyclable material in the supply chain by properly sorting and disposing of their waste at home.

Ensuring recyclability starts with putting people at the forefront to develop new systems and materials to create a continuous lifecycle for plastics. We need to design systems for humanity. That’s why I love design thinking, which is problem-solving through a human lens. By harnessing design thinking, it’s possible to make human-centered recycling systems a reality. To get started, I recommend thinking through these three main tenets:

Cross-collaboration: Connecting different industries, cultures and experiences

Cross-collaboration is key to unlocking new ideas through inclusive problem-solving. Dow focuses on partnerships across supply chains and communities to create solutions that address plastic waste. Collaboration is also critical to behavior-change programs that aim to educate and encourage action for recycling in local communities. At SXSW, panelist Ryan Hollinrake, founder of the Great Sea Project, shared the great work his organization is doing to reduce ocean plastic pollution through community education. They’re currently focused on the Caribbean, where recycling programs are scarce.

Thanks to Ryan, we were introduced to a creative innovator in the sustainability space, Briony Douglas — an artist working on creating a shoe from recycled plastic caps. In fact, Dow — with help from our customer, Bericap — provided these caps through our Recycling for Change program. The beginnings of Briony’s awesome work can be found here.

Empathy: Putting humanity first to understand different points of view

Leading and learning with empathy is essential for building solutions that work for diverse needs and people. A designer has the power to create an emotional response from a consumer; influence behavior; and ultimately, change the discourse of how we work, live and play — which is critical to modern life.

Designers need to be able to test solutions and learn from them quickly — they must have the courage to fail fast, and often, to truly reap the rewards of new successes. Another SXSW panelist, Patricia Miller, CEO of Matrix 4, understands the importance of empathy from design to market. Led by her creative eye for design, her organization is reimagining “waste” and converting it into art, blazing the trail for design manufacturing while creating an emotional connection between people and everyday materials. Matrix 4 is also focused on optimizing the value of plastic by exploring traditional resins to bioplastics and up-cycling opportunities.

Action: Bringing to life fresh, innovative solutions through investments in human-centric systems

Ideas that put people first are necessary not only for redesigning products that consumers demand, but also reimagining our infrastructure in local communities and at scale.

Did you know that the US has more than 10,000 recycling programs alone? The US recycling system is incredibly fragmented — which is confusing to consumers in terms of how to recycle, as well as to NGOs and businesses that are looking to design solutions at scale. And that’s where government could play a key role by investing in national frameworks that create streamlined, human-centric recycling systems, while also updating local infrastructure and manufacturing.

Europe’s Green Deal, for example, is laying out some progressive targets. Through specific extended producer responsibility (EPR) systems, the Green Deal incentivizes the drive for recyclability — which goes back into infrastructure investments. Businesses such as Fuenix Ecogy Group in the Netherlands and Dow’s latest partnership with Mura in the UK harness these manufacturing investments to drive material innovation in plastic waste reuse. Advanced recycling technology can process a wider range of plastic types — including multi-layer, flexible plastics used in packaging, which are currently harder to recycle and often incinerated or sent to landfills. Ultimately, advanced recycling manufacturing and technology reduces complexity in the overall system, making it simpler for consumers to participate.

If we redesign recycling in these human-centric ways, it is possible to catalyze new systems and materials to create a continuous lifecycle for plastics. Through this lens, plastic is transformed from something that’s problematic to an opportunity that redefines what’s possible for consumers, products and our planet.

To learn more about designing for humanity, check out Dow’s Pack Studios, where packaging is being redesigned with people — and recycling — in mind.

We are optimistic about our world’s future: Dow is taking action to address the full scale of challenges; collaborating with partners to improve the industry’s processes; and through innovation helping communities become more sustainable.




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