Solving the ongoing packaging conundrum demands a significant shift in how businesses think — moving from a linear to a circular model of operation to improve the amount of packaging that can be reused, recycled and returned to the value chain.
Companies are under more pressure than ever before to ensure their packaging does not have a lasting impact on the natural environment. At the same time, consumers are hyperaware of the need to reduce the amount of plastic waste because of its impact on the environment. As a result, more countries are proposing regulation to reduce waste while business leaders have put the recyclability of materials as a top agenda issue.
“In my 20 years of working in packaging, I’ve never seen the subject gain so much interest,” says Julie Zaniewski, who has been a Sustainability Director at Dow since 2019 and was previously with Unilever for almost 20 years. She credits this groundswell of excitement to improved consumer understanding.
Previously, the sole purpose of packaging was to contain a product and keep it safe and secure — from the manufacturing plant to the supermarket, to the home: “Beyond that, there really wasn’t much else to consider,” Zaniewski says.
But as consumer understanding has evolved, there are a range of considerations to be made — not least whether that packaging is really the most sustainable option.
Increased consumer awareness is helping shape policy and regulation, with lawmakers growing in confidence as they impose sanctions and penalties on companies that fail to reduce the impact of packaging.
“It’s also driving a lot of activity indirectly to ensure the right mechanisms, infrastructure and technologies are in place,” Zaniewski says.
But making the right decision about the type and amount of packaging to use is a complex business. Solving the packaging conundrum demands a significant shift in how businesses think, moving from a linear to a circular model of operation to improve the amount of packaging that can be reused, recycled and returned to the value chain.
And often, it’s not as easy as simply using alternatives to plastic, as that could lead to unintended consequences that are not necessarily better for the planet. For example, according to Trucost, replacing plastic packaging with alternative materials would increase environmental costs from $139 billion to $533 billion annually. Similarly, a recent study by researchers at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University shows that replacing plastics with alternative materials such as glass and metal would increase manufacturing costs due to the energy consumed and resources, including water, required to process them.
There is no silver bullet in the race to go circular, improve recyclability, responsibly supply bio-based materials, and reduce our dependency on fossil-fuel-derived products, Zaniewski asserts: “Of course, there are a range of different options available. But to make sure that we have materials available to consumers, we have to also ensure the production processes and waste collection and recycling infrastructure is in place.”
While the technology exists, it is often the startup investment and operational costs of new systems that are a stretch too far.
“We need to make sure waste management and recycling management achieve parity. Right now, they do not,” she says.
Dow is committed to playing its part. In Alberta, Canada, it is building the world’s first net-zero emissions integrated ethylene cracker and derivatives site — more than tripling capacity to deal with ethylene and polyethylene from its facility there. It will be able to produce and supply roughly 3.2 million metric tons of certified low- to zero-carbon polyethylene and ethylene derivatives for its customers around the world.
The company has also made a series of investments to make sure it can deliver more recycled plastic packaging products that provide the same performance as virgin plastics. In the Netherlands, Dow has teamed up with Fuenix Ecogy Group to expand circular plastics production. A new plant will process 20,000 tons of plastic waste into pyrolysis oil feedstock, which will be used to produce new circular plastic for new products including beauty tubes, lettuce containers and more.
The company is also working with Gunvor Petroleum Rotterdam to purify pyrolysis oil feedstocks derived from plastic waste. Gunvor is supplying cracker-ready feedstock for Dow to make more circular plastics, with the purification process being used to ensure the pyrolysis oil feedstocks are of sufficient quality to produce new polymers.
Companies including Amazon are also leading the charge. Amazon is one of several big businesses to inject money into funds managed by Closed Loop Partners, which invests in sustainable manufacturing technologies and recycling. Together, companies including Coca-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble and Walmart have committed more than $54 million to support a range of projects. These include Eureka Recycling, which recovers nearly 100,000 tons of primarily residential recycling a year; and TemperPack, which makes plant- and fiber-based, insulated packaging solutions for cold chain shipments, perishable food and pharmaceuticals.
Dow’s own sustainability targets will continue to drive its packaging innovation, creating products in a way that has a reduced environmental impact both operationally and for customers as they use them.
As Zaniewski emphasizes, "We're committed to closing the loop by redesigning our packaging so that it is 100 percent reusable or recyclable by 2035 — that’s good news for Dow, good news for our customers and good news for the planet.”