“We’ve been working on design for recyclability for years now. But the next step is to make packaging fully recyclable and then collect the packaging to recycle it into new products. We’re very close to creating a low-carbon, circular economy.” — Han Zhang
COVID-19, the rising cost of living, ongoing health concerns and societal inequities have created an era of heightened public anxiety, which is changing the role of business in society like never before. As the latest Edelman Trust Barometer shows, brand trust ranks above all else: “The deeper dependence on brands forged in the pandemic has made trust an essential purchase consideration, nearly equal to quality and value,” says Edelman CEO Richard Edelman.
Before coronavirus disrupted the world, customers were asking companies to serve up products and services that have a lower environmental impact. Now, people expect that as a “bare minimum,” according to FutureBrand. Being a sustainable company is, therefore, “unlikely to create long-term distinction and differential value,” it says. Instead, so-called “Super-Sustainable” firms must establish new approaches that go “beyond climate, to create and support the behaviours and practices on which human wellbeing can be maintained and extended.”
Against this backdrop, companies such as Dow must continue to innovate to meet new expectations — particularly in bringing packaging and specialty plastics to the market that can help customers step up to the plate. To ensure it delivers on this, the company has set a series of targets to advance a circular economy and protect the natural environment, with two clear and closely-linked intended outcomes: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and eliminate plastic waste. By 2030, Dow will ensure that one million metric tons of plastic is either collected, reused or recycled — either directly through its work or through partnerships. By 2035, it promises to have closed the loop on waste by making sure 100 percent of its products sold into packaging applications are reusable or recyclable. By 2050, the company says it will be carbon neutral — including its supply chain.
To meet such bold goals, Dow knows it has to make its products more sustainable than any alternative, so that customers find it easier to make the right choice. It also means it must work with customers to help them redesign their packaging, for instance, and demonstrate the value of switching to recycled plastics. And Dow must find solutions in all corners of the globe.
“There’s no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all solution. Each country and each location requires a tailor-made solution,” Han Zhang tells Sustainable Brands™. As Global Sustainability Director for Dow Packaging & Specialty Plastics in Asia Pacific, he understands the need to consider the cultural, economic and political nuances of local markets when making decisions designed to meet globally set sustainability goals. “In Asia, a lot of countries rely on the informal waste sector, for example. That’s why five Asian countries account for up to 60 percent of global marine debris — there is a lack of waste management infrastructure. In some countries, people just dump waste or openly burn it,” he adds.
However, Zhang sees this as an opportunity for countries such as India to leapfrog more developed nations. Rather than build the necessary waste management network, he believes digitization can bring together a fragmented waste value chain. In India, Dow has teamed up with Reckyal, a company founded by Abhay Deshpande — a serial entrepreneur who has spent the last 20 years developing internet, eCommerce and Solution-as-a-Service businesses. Together, the two firms launched Rethink+ in Pune, near Mumbai. There, consumers and businesses are connected to people working in waste management through a digital platform.
“They can inform a waste collector of what kind of waste they need picking up, as well as the quantity and the location,” Zhang explains. “This way, the waste collectors receive high-quality waste which they can sell at a higher price — and recyclers have a better-quality feedstock and can make better products.”
The Rethink+ platform also enables digital payment, invoicing and online documentation, ensuring the whole chain is fully transparent and traceable. “This is very important for developing countries with an informal waste sector — and critical to brand owners that must now comply with India’s new Extended Producer Responsibility scheme ,” Zhang says. Thanks to Dow’s pilot with Reckyal, the startup has found new investment and is ready to scale up.
Such partnerships create excitement and engagement across companies such as Dow. But how does the firm maintain momentum in meeting its sustainability goals, especially when they include long-term targets? For Zhang, communicating the strategy, explaining the targets and building a bigger team to embrace the targets are key.
“Similar to many other companies, we’ve launched very aggressive goals. But what differentiates a great company from other companies is the type of strategy adopted and how it will be implemented and achieved,” he says. “We need everyone to embrace the targets, to ensure it’s everybody’s day-to-day job to help us achieve the goals — including sales, R&D and the commercial organization.”
Zhang’s team in Asia has become bigger over time, as it has globally. And it has been crucial to get management-level buy-in so that the strategy isn’t just seen as a sustainability strategy, rather a business one. And the business is making strong progress, particularly in Asia. Many countries have made progress in commercializing mechanical recycling, with Dow’s REVOLOOP process delivering consistently high-quality PCR — a post-consumer recycled plastic that can be reprocessed into a resin that can be used to create new packaging.
The company is also working with shoe company Crocs to create a “shoe of the future.” It is using Dow’s ECOLIBRIUM™ technology to use waste and by-products as part of the plastic that goes into each shoe.
Finding opportunities to close the loop on products and waste keeps Zhang excited about the future: “We’ve been working on design for recyclability for years now. But the next step is to make packaging fully recyclable and then collect the packaging to then recycle it into new products. We’re very close to creating a low-carbon, circular economy.”
Still, challenges remain. More consistent and science-based policy and regulation will help to accelerate action and “avoid pushing the burden upstream or downstream,” as Zhang puts it. And increasingly enlightened and demanding consumers will continue to apply the pressure, he adds. “A lot of people want to solve this problem overnight, but the challenge is significant.
“I want more collaboration with different stakeholders, including NGOs and private companies. We all have the same goal: We want to make sure there’s no plastic waste that ends up in the environment. We want to create a circular economy. We may choose a different pathway to reach this goal, but I think we can find common ground to work together.”
Dow is continuing to expand its capabilities and maintain momentum in the US and Europe through partnerships with Mura Technology (the largest commitment of its kind to scale advanced recycling of plastics), Nexus Circular (development of a new advanced recycling facility in Texas), and Valoregen (collaboration to build the largest hybrid recycling site in France). Read more about other announcements and highlights here.