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Recycling is a powerful tool; but we also must recognize there is much more work to be done to achieve circularity at the scope and scale necessary.
Day (ARD) is
celebrating its 26th anniversary on November 15. Hatched in Texas to promote
a more circular economy for local waste, it was first held nationally in 1997.
The theme was “Buy
and the idea was so popular it garnered the support of nearly 40 states in its
inaugural year, reflecting recycling’s resonance. With climate change at the
forefront today, what has changed about recycling since ARD was founded?
The answer, as many know, is complicated. The US’s de-centralized recycling
system offers serious challenges, including a lack of programs and services that
can make recycling inconvenient. The result is a growing lack of public
in the concept of recycling.
Reversing this trend by creating meaningful and measurable efficiencies in the
recycling system needs to be a top priority. That’s why my team at
Dow — along with many other amazing partners and
collaborators — is working to capture the value of waste by improving recycling
end-to-end, from designing more recyclable products to investing in waste
management infrastructure. Recycling is a powerful tool; but we also must
recognize there is much more work to be done to achieve circularity at the scope
and scale necessary.
The way to do this? Taking a systems approach — identifying the gaps, connecting
the best partners and scaling how the world values, sources and transforms
At its most basic, the materials
is the multifaceted network of interrelated technologies, processes and people
working together to transform plastic and renewable waste into useful, valuable
materials. By viewing recycling through a systems lens, we are better equipped
to understand the opportunities and challenges around plastic waste and improve
how local systems value, source and transform that waste. What are these new
technologies and processes, and who are the stakeholders involved in bringing a
materials ecosystem to life?
To answer these questions, let’s break down five elements of the materials
ecosystem that can work together to usher in a new paradigm for recycling.
Consumers’ demand for sustainable products has been on the rise and shows no
sign of slowing. During the COVID-19 pandemic, six in 10
still went out of their way to purchase a product with sustainable packaging.
The companies of the future are acting right now to meet sustainability demands
and give customers confidence to use their purchase power for products that
support circularity. Consumers and their choices for more sustainable products
are massive drivers in the materials ecosystem.
Effectively collecting, cleaning and sorting waste requires coordination in
areas like curbside recycling to capture hard-to-recycle materials such as
films, which have the lowest overall recycling rate, according
The Recycling Partnership.
To solve these infrastructure challenges, Dow is working with WM to improve
for films by allowing consumers in select markets to include them in curbside
recycling. Once operational at full capacity, this program is expected to help
WM divert more than 120,000 metric tons of plastics film from landfills annually
and make it possible to recycle film plastics such as bread bags, cling wrap and
dry-cleaning bags — and, in turn, contribute to the growing materials ecosystem.
The recycling most people are familiar with today is called mechanical
recycling, where plastic waste is shredded and re-formed into different plastic
products. But not all plastics can be recycled through this method. Enter
— which allows for the transformation of waste by taking hard-to-recycle plastic
products, such as films and flexible plastics, and breaking them down into their
base molecules that can then be used to manufacture entirely new products. And a
with both mechanical and advanced recycling can keep more end-of-life products
out of the waste stream while reducing the need for non-renewable feedstocks.
Dow is partnering with Mura
making the largest commitment of its kind to scale advanced recycling. More
specifically, Mura’s process can recycle all forms of plastic waste including
those considered “unrecyclable” — including films, pots, tubs and trays, which
currently can only be incinerated or sent to landfill. The process is designed
to work alongside conventional recycling and wider initiatives to reduce and
reuse plastic such as mechanical recycling, which remains crucial to Dow's
The materials ecosystem is greatly influenced by the role of federal and state
public policy. At Dow, we believe a circular economy policy
must work to accomplish progress, which starts with fostering more open
innovation in areas like advanced recycling across governments, industries,
academia and NGOs. This type of collaboration within the materials ecosystem
will allow for more waste to be transformed.
My colleague, Jennifer Ronk —
Senior Sustainability Officer at Dow — recently
the opportunity well: “Government policies can either drive an increase in
recycling rates or they can hold back the American recycling system from
growing.” In other words, if done well, regulatory oversight can accelerate
innovation. A timely example is the implementation of extended producer
which is occurring with varied success in different parts of the world. At Dow,
we believe getting it right requires flexibility at the local, regional and
national levels to ensure waste-management systems function appropriately and
are economically self-sustaining. At the same time, earmarking funding for
collection, sorting and recycling while also consulting business with policy,
sector-specific oversight is integral to enabling greater circularity.
One way to capture the value of waste is by designing for
from the very beginning—at the molecular level. Doing so, however, can be
challenging for companies that must uproot longstanding practices, such as
switching out a type of packaging that has worked well but does not enable
recyclability and use of recycled content.
This is where Dow’s team at Pack
in to help our customers. Pack Studios is the powerful combination of
state-of-the-art facilities offering equipment, labs and testing capabilities
paired with an incomparable network of packaging experts. In Asia, Pack
Studios Singapore has been partnering with
Prepack — one of the leading
flexible-packaging manufactures in Thailand. Working together in areas
including performance testing and validation, they have created solutions for
companies including Royal Umbrella — the
biggest rice brand in Thailand. In this case, a mono-material was created that
is easy to recycle and allows for a reduction in overall packaging materials
while maintaining the same excellent performance.
26 years ago, when America Recycles Day was first celebrated nationally, the
“Buy Recycled” theme was brought to life with a corresponding raffle to win an
“American Green Dream House” — a recycled-content and energy-efficient filled
home. Today, the home we’re working to save is our planet; and transforming the
value of future and existing waste is central to winning the ultimate raffle — a
sustainable and healthy future for all.
Published Nov 14, 2023 1pm EST / 10am PST / 6pm GMT / 7pm CET
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.
Everyone has a role to play in creating a more sustainable world: Dow is taking action to address the full scale of challenges, collaborating with partners to improve the industry’s processes and through innovation to help communities become more sustainable.