INDUSTRY INSIGHTThought Leadership

Addressing today’s plastic challenge

Plastics use, especially in packaging, continues to grow, but plastics are coming under scrutiny because of issues around waste and recycling. Following the 2018 GPCA PlastiCon in Dubai, we spoke with Javier Constante – EMEA Commercial Vice President for Dow’s Packaging & Specialty Plastics Business, about the industry’s challenges of today and tomorrow

Mr. Constante, do you regard the current debate and initiatives around the circular economy (especially in the EU), ocean litter and low levels of plastics recycling as posing a significant challenge to plastics producers?

I think all of these are significant challenges for every individual on this planet. Who wants to see their products ending up in nature? Nobody. Who needs to be involved in addressing the issues? Everybody. It might seem a bit simplistic, but if we want to prevent products from ending up in nature and ensuring that we create the best possible products from both a function point of view as well as from a sustainability point of view, then it is clear that each individual has a role to play. At the same time, it indicates how complex the challenges are that we are facing today.

Mr. Constante, in your presentation at PlastiCon titled “Redefining plastics production – Disrupting the traditional polymer industry” you first shared a positive outlook on the future of the industry – global population is growing and income is rising, causing the demand for polyethylene to continue to grow. Then you shared some insights on the effects of this growth: an increase in waste streams. Could you tell us a little bit more about this challenge?

The question is not about the fact if the use of plastics creates issues. Whenever you consider a full life cycle approach to plastics packaging, you will see that plastic is a very effective and efficient material to protect valuable products and that it is a very sophisticated material too. The challenge comes in with emotion. It feels kind of counterintuitive that plastics are better for the environment than more traditional materials. And, once you see the images of plastic waste in the oceans, eaten by animals, who does not feel sad? It is terrible. Waste does not belong in oceans. More specifically, people should make sure they dispose of their waste in a responsible way. But that’s apparently not so easy. Not in European countries, not in other parts of the world.

“Pack Studios is about collaboration. By inviting experts from different companies with different expertise to discuss a challenge, we usually find smarter solutions (…)”

So, in your view, what should change? Can the industry continue to operate as it has done?

I can’t speak for other companies, but I have been with Dow long enough to know that we are in a constant change mode. The way we produce and run our business is different compared to a few years ago, let alone if you would compare with past decades. What hasn’t changed is our desire and ability to change things for the better. We learn every day and based on that, get new ideas for improvements constantly. Allow me an example: At the end of the 1980’s, we defined our Corporate 2005 Sustainability Goals with the ambition to reduce leaks and spills at our production sites globally by 90%. And once we published these, people were surprised and asked us how we would be able to achieve that goal. The honest answer was that we didn’t know how to do this, but that we were convinced that without challenging goals there would be little progress. Today we know that we did find ways to do this.  We used new technologies and insights and were indeed able to reduce with 90%.

I use this example to illustrate that it is my strong belief that when we discuss the topic of waste and pollution, I see myself and our company not as part of the problem, but part of the solution. We continue to work on smarter and better (packaging) materials: allowing for downgauging; making more efficient use of raw materials. At the same time, we also use our material science to improve the performance of our materials – resulting in better / longer protection of food for example –valuable goods that need to be protected. With this, we contribute to less food waste, which does not only contribute to feeding people, it prevents valuable products from spoiling before the end of their life.

As mentioned, we are in constant change mode, and looking at recent years, I see that we have moved on from a focus on our products to a focus on the functionality of our products. What does a product do? What’s the value of our product(s) in the final application? That has become a crucial part of our business. It is because of this approach that our “Pack Studios” concept is very successful and has been implemented across the globe.

This sounds like an interesting concept. What is Pack Studios and what does it involve? 

It engages all relevant players across the value chain: our customers, machine manufacturers, brand owners, etc. Everyone who has a role to play in the creation of packaging can be involved in order to find the best possible solution for whatever packaging challenge. This does not mean that we talk directly to consumers, but when discussing the development of new or improved materials, the end use – very often at a consumer level – forms the starting point. Pack Studios is about collaboration. We do know that we don’t have all the answers and by inviting experts from different companies with different expertise to discuss a challenge, we usually find smarter solutions then we would have if we only approached a topic from the material science side. When addressing the topic of waste, this process is most certainly going to help us, and we believe that we have a crucial role to play, because very often, the quality and functionality of an end-product is defined by the raw materials that are used to create it.

The role of collaboration is absolutely crucial in addressing some of these key challenges – can you give us an example?

Sure – think about recyclability of flexible packaging. Today this is still not always that easy, and sometimes it is even hard. So we’ve developed compatibilizers to enable recycling of multi-material films, and we continue to refine these. We also consider recycling requirements when working on new packaging solutions to allow recycling after use. And we are obviously working on the development of polyethylene materials with specific functionalities to replace other materials. The aim is to contribute to creating mono-material packages that are easy to recycle. So you see that in pretty much all we do, sustainability plays a crucial role. We develop and improve our materials with the end in mind. How and where are these going to be used?  What happens after their use? We try to provide the desired functionality from the beginning of the cycle and we work on multiple fronts, because it is clear to me that we cannot address today’s challenges with one solution. We need multiple.

“I strongly believe in learning by doing. Tomorrow we will know more than today thanks to the fact that we are experiencing things.”

What advice would you give GCC polymer producers and governments so that they can improve their performance on plastics and the environment?

Collaborate. Get started. Trying to solve the issue just by yourself is not going to work. The challenges are too big and too complex, and each and every individual has a role to play. By waiting and investigating we will use too much time and learn too little. I strongly believe in learning by doing. Tomorrow we will know more than today thanks to the fact that we are experiencing things. Finally, ensure we take a rational, not an emotional approach. Let’s make sure we use science and facts to address the waste problem and develop the best possible solutions. Your idea might not be ‘the silver bullet’, but when it comes to sustainability, a lot of small steps (ideas) combined over a period of time make for a solid improvement. I’m convinced that every day, there are opportunities to further improve. The challenges are immense, but the industry is progressing at a fast pace, especially when it comes to improving recyclability and working on projects to improve waste management. That’s why I’m happy to go to work every day – to continue to contribute to the solution.