INDUSTRY INSIGHT

Vision for the Future: Making the Circular Economy a Reality

Lorraine Francourt, EHS Director, Chemicals Management and Circular Economy, Dow Chemicals, and one of the speakers at the 10th GPCA PlastiCon held in March in Bahrain, tells GPCA Insight Express why collaboration is so central to addressing global plastic waste and how it can accelerate the move to a sustainable circular economy

Can you describe what the Plastics Circular Economy looks like and what does this mean for chemical producers globally?

In a circular economy, material is maintained at its highest value for as long as possible and nothing goes to waste. However, studies have shown that the world is only about 9% circular today. Advancing a circular economy was identified as one of Dow’s 2025 sustainability goals in 2015. It is a very challenging goal which would require us to rethink many of the things that we do and collaborate in new ways with stakeholders across markets, applications or value chains that we want to enable to be more circular.

Plastic waste in our environment is unacceptable. At the same time, plastic plays many crucial roles in society. It is essential that we show that they can retain their value at the end of their first use. As an industry we need to develop a healthy obsession with making plastics too valuable to be lost as waste. If we don’t, the many advantages of plastics (light-weight, hygienic, durable, moisture-proof, lower carbon footprint) could be lost by using alternative and less effective materials for specific applications.

Concretely, this means we are now accelerating innovations to enhance recycling. This includes improving the recyclability of flexible plastic packing. We are combining this with developments in our compatibilizer portfolio, which helps to recycle materials which were previously not recyclable. Together with our value chain partners, we will ensure that all the packaging made from our resin in Europe is recyclable into valuable applications by 2025. At the same time, we are also collaborating with industry partners, recyclers and waste management companies to increase the value of plastic waste by creating high value recycled applications. We are working on finding ways to overcome the challenges of incorporating recycled content into new high value plastic products – for example we have begun to tackle the many challenges around incorporating post-consumer recyclate (PCR) plastics into the products we sell to customers. Customers welcome and need these initiatives, as long as product quality and performance requirements are not compromised.

“We must collaborate in new ways with everybody that has a role in any particular market, application or value chain that we want to enable to be more circular.”
“Our vision for the future of plastic is a world in which the practical and social benefits of plastic are matched by its environmental performance – and one where plastic is too valuable to be lost to waste.”

Can you tell us a little bit more about Dow’s new Packaging Sustainability Strategy?

Our sustainability strategy focuses on ensuring plastics are used ONLY when they are the best material for the job. We believe that Dow has a role to play in every stage of the circular economy. We have made and will continue to make commitments on all areas of the plastics life cycle – from production, design, retrieval and collection, recycling and ensuring markets for recovered materials.

For example, we are exploring ways to produce plastics using recycled content or potentially alternative feedstocks. On design, we continue to design plastic products with the lowest environmental impact through their lifecycle – and we are working with customers and end users to ensure all packaging is recyclable or reusable. We will work to support infrastructure and collection – committing significant investment over five years to support countries to invest in improving poor waste management infrastructure and in systems to stop plastic being lost to landfills and the environment. We will support the recycling industry by increasing recycling levels through investing and innovating in design for recyclability, closed loop systems, mechanical recycling and feedstock recycling.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we are working on stimulating markets for recyclate to improve the value and economics of plastics recycling – including finding ways of incorporating recycled content in the products we sell to customers. Just a few weeks ago we announced the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with a company called Boomera, a start-up specialized in waste management, reverse logistics and circular economy to develop and produce our first post-consumer recycled resin.

Our vision for the future of plastic is a world in which the practical and social benefits of plastic are matched by its environmental performance. Dow hopes to achieve this by working with all our partners to ensure the circularity of plastic.

How is traditional packaging being impacted by the rise of sustainability and circular economy? How should the industry be responding?

Sustainability has always been part of what we do. Over the last decade we have consistently invested in creating products with the lowest environmental impact. Our strength has been resource efficiency – using the smallest amount of plastic possible while enhancing functional performance to protect products and reduce waste, including food waste. This has been very successful with, for example, highly engineered stand-up pouches replacing heavier packaging formats for delivery of food and consumer staples – delivering higher performance while reducing resource use (remember that “reduce” still stands at the top of the waste hierarchy) and reducing transport emissions.

But we now face a new set of challenges – plastic waste, marine litter and the circular economy. We also need to be open in our thinking – we have recently found applications where flexible packaging can be reused by the consumer. Dow believes that plastic should be too valuable to be lost as waste. It should be part of the circular economy – so that from design to end of use, we retain the value of plastic.

 

Dow is part of Circulate Capital and the Alliance to End Plastic Waste which is dedicating USD 1.5 billion to incubate and finance solutions in Asia and around the world to prevent ocean plastic. Why did you join these initiatives and what do you aim to achieve?

We joined these initiatives as a means of working with partners to support the development of waste management and infrastructure in the areas needing it most, beginning in the Asia-Pacific region. It is clear that the global waste management challenges will not be solved by governments and municipalities alone, and we believe that industry has a role to play which is why we are joining and leading in these collective efforts.

We also hope to support innovation to advance and bring to scale new technologies that make recycling and recovering plastic easier and create value from all post-use plastic. Plastic waste can be a valuable renewable resource that should be put to use. If we have the ability to sort, reuse and recycle plastics, and then incentivize businesses to invest in new infrastructure across the value chain, we can help tackle the global issue.

“Today, due to a lack of effective waste management and recovery infrastructure in many parts of the world, combined with variable rates of recycling, too much plastic is being lost to waste.”
“Oxo-degradable plastics do not disappear from the environment, they merely break down to smaller particles, which is itself an issue. Some areas, like the European Union have gone as far as proposing a restriction on these substances, something for the GCC to consider.”

How important are innovation and product design when it comes to addressing plastic pollution? And equally, what is the role of waste management infrastructure, public attitudes and building awareness to combat the issue?

The solution to marine litter and leakage of plastic to the environment is to ensure that from design to end of use, we retain the value of plastic. Today, due to a lack of effective waste management and recovery infrastructure in many parts of the world, combined with variable rates of recycling, too much plastic is being lost to waste. Combatting the problem involves collaborating through the value chain and with governments and NGOs to stop this from happening. A large part of the work of the Alliance and also in our company is education and awareness – we are reaching out to many difference communities to speak about the issue and learn about the challenges together.

There is no one solution, one company or one group who can solve the issue alone. Redesigning plastic packaging to make it more recyclable and incorporate plastic waste in new products are central elements to our vision for the future of plastics and we are working with our value chain to achieve these ambitions. However, we cannot do this without support from governments, waste management companies and individuals. This is something we need to work together to address and be more proactive in coming with solutions to these challenges.

Your presentation at the 2019 GPCA PlastiCon was part of a session entitled ‘Creating an environment for growth of plastics recycling in the GCC’ – is the GCC region headed in the right direction and what role can the chemical sector play in enabling a robust plastic recycling industry in the region?

The GCC is absolutely heading in the right direction through its own initiatives as well as learning from others. I am really pleased to see the engagement of GPCA member companies, local NGOs and brand owners. One area that has proved to be a hot topic of debate though, is that of oxo-degradable plastics. Although some have promoted their use in the past and there is potential for their use being enforced, for example by the Saudi Arabia Standards Organization (SASO), it’s now understood that these products greatly impede successful recycling. A good quality recycled plastic cannot be produced if it is contaminated with oxo-degradable plastic. In addition, oxo-degradable plastics do not disappear from the environment, they merely break down to smaller particles, which is itself an issue. Some areas, like the European Union have gone as far as proposing a restriction on these substances, something for the GCC to consider.