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From Purpose to Action: Building a Sustainable Future Together
Can a Systems Approach Unlock the Value of Waste? Yes, Here’s How

Alongside collaborators such as BanQu and New Energy Blue, we’re redefining what we think of as waste — designing for more sustainable materials and recyclability; and valuing people such as waste pickers and farmers, right from the start.

How do we transform every aspect of our take-make-waste system? How do we find ways to take resources traditionally seen as “waste” and create brand-new, sustainable products and materials? How do we reimagine waste — how we use it, even what we call it — by leveraging systems thinking?

We explored these questions and more in a panel discussion at this year’s Fast Company Innovation Festival. I sat down with Thomas Corle — co-founder, Chairman and CEO of New Energy Blue — and Ashish Gadnis, CEO of BanQu, to explore a world where we reclaim the value of waste.

At Dow, we are innovating within the materials ecosystem — the web of interrelated technologies, processes and people that transform plastic waste and renewable waste into useful materials — to develop scalable, viable, circular solutions. Last year, we announced our goal to Transform the Waste — collaborating to invest in key technologies, infrastructure and industrial ecosystems to transform plastic waste and other forms of alternative feedstock to commercialize 3 million metric tons of circular and renewable solutions annually by 2030.

We’re working toward this goal by investing in advanced recycling — a technology that enables us to take hard-to-recycle materials back to their original building blocks so they can be converted into new products. To reach our goal, we must unlock even more waste. That’s where New Energy Blue comes in.

The biomass refiner has developed a process for turning agricultural residue in the form of corn stover into bio-based ethylene — the hydrocarbon gas widely used to produce plastic.

“Wherever there is waste — and there is waste all over this planet — we need to be able to utilize that waste to provide our energy and to provide our products,” Thomas said during the Innovation Festival panel. The company launched an agreement in May in which Dow will purchase New Energy Blue’s bio-based ethylene to use in plastic applications.

Expanding the types of waste that can be processed and turned into new products also expands the waste entrepreneurs’ circle to include farmers and waste pickers. Ashish explained that waste pickers working around the world face a particular challenge today: They are a crucial cog in the wheel, ensuring wasted materials come back into the system; “however, they are largely invisible because they cannot prove their existence in the global circular supply chain."

BanQu is working to change that by ensuring not only that supply chains are traceable and transparent, but also that waste pickers are compensated and treated fairly. It uses blockchain technology to track and record how much recycled plastic each waste picker has sold, when and at what price. The workers get a copy of each transaction in the form of an SMS message that cannot be deleted because it’s connected to the blockchain.

The type of bold collaborations exemplified by New Energy Blue and BanQu is an important piece of the materials ecosystem; but gaps do remain. We talked about some of these gaps at the Fast Company event — from a lack of science-based policy support for advanced recycling to a lack of investment in waste-management infrastructure, such as curbside recycling for flexible plastics such as films and plastic grocery bags.

Even with these challenges, Dow and its collaborators remain hopeful and driven. Right now, the UN is still attempting to negotiate a global plastic pollution treaty — which would be a key driver to help finance and build out a circular waste-management ecosystem.

There’s also movement toward supply chain transparency: In North America, for example, technologies such as The Recycling Partnership’s Recycle Check enable people to scan their product packaging to see if it is recyclable in their communities. With more than 9,000 recycling systems in the US, consumers are understandably confused; and this type of innovation will help to build some much-needed trust in the system and ensure even more materials can be reused.

Plastic is a necessary material in our society — it helps keep food fresh and cars lightweight, among many other important applications; the issues arise when discarded plastic doesn’t make its way back into the circular ecosystem. It’s also vital that we redefine how we source raw materials for our products and include renewable feedstocks.

And that’s what we’re trying to solve at Dow alongside innovative collaborators such as BanQu and New Energy Blue — redefining what we think of as waste; designing for the use of sustainable materials and recyclability; and valuing people such as waste pickers and farmers, right from the start.

Explore the materials ecosystem here to learn more about how interrelated technologies, processes and people are transforming plastic waste and other waste into useful materials.

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.

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