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From Purpose to Action: Building a Sustainable Future Together
Reflecting on America Recycles Day:
5 Ways Recycled Waste is Transforming Circularity

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.

America Recycles 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 Recycled” 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 trust 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 waste.

The materials ecosystem

At its most basic, the materials ecosystem 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.

1. Consumers

Consumers’ demand for sustainable products has been on the rise and shows no sign of slowing. During the COVID-19 pandemic, six in 10 consumers 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.

2. Recycling infrastructure

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 to The Recycling Partnership.

To solve these infrastructure challenges, Dow is working with WM to improve residential recycling 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.

3. New technologies and processes for diverse feedstocks

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 advanced recycling — 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 hybrid recycling approach 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 Technology, 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 recycling strategy.

4. Policy

The materials ecosystem is greatly influenced by the role of federal and state public policy. At Dow, we believe a circular economy policy agenda 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 captured 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 responsibility (EPR) legislation, 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.

5. Designing for circularity

One way to capture the value of waste is by designing for circularity 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 Studios comes 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.

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.

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