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The idea of sustainability in business — and the idea that companies have some responsibility in the matter — can be traced back to the early 1970s when scientists published the IPAT framework, a first attempt to calculate the impact of humans on the environment.
December 14, 2022
The idea of sustainability in business — and the idea that companies have some responsibility in the matter — can be traced back to the early 1970s when scientists published the IPAT framework, a first attempt to calculate the impact of humans on the environment. Since then, companies have only increased their usage and consideration of this concept. As the effects of climate change become increasingly obvious and consumers demand that corporations do more, sustainability in business has transcended from consideration to imperative.
Dow, the company where I serve as North America senior sustainability manager of Packing and Specialty Plastics, was an early adopter on sustainability. In 1990, we joined Responsible Care, a voluntary global initiative for chemical companies to drive safety and achieve excellence in environmental performance, committing itself to sustainability goals.
I bring up these early sustainability commitments because it’s important to recognize how far we have come. However, accomplishments in the field of sustainability shouldn’t overshadow how far we still have to go. Throughout 2022, Dow has celebrated its 125th year in business. As the year ends, I look back on the company’s progress over recent decades and recognize other organizations making similar strides. I’m optimistic that in 2023 and beyond, our passion for creating a better future, combined with our focus on innovation, will drive us much closer to closing the loop on the circular economy.
The Promise and Potential of Advanced Waste Management
Waste management is one element of sustainability that is changing rapidly, for the better. In October 2022, Dow announced its commitments in this area with our Transform the Waste goal, a focused effort in circularity. By 2030, Dow will transform plastic waste and other forms of alternative feedstock to commercialize 3 million metric tons of circular and renewable solutions annually.
Our primary efforts toward circularity in waste management involve building industrial ecosystems to collect, reuse and recycle waste, scaling to meet rapidly growing demand along the way. Our recently announced advanced and mechanical recycling partnerships are significant strides toward this goal, enabling us to increase our capacity to use waste as feedstock. For example, we have partnered with Mura Technology to construct multiple advanced recycling facilities in the U.S. and Europe — a move we expect to add as much as 600 kilotons of annual capacity collectively. We’ve also invested in building the largest single hybrid recycling site in France, managed by Valoregen, which will serve as a source of high-demand post-consumer resins for Dow.
Hybrid Mechanical and Advanced Recycling Will Drive a Sustainable Future
These partnerships and other notable waste management initiatives across the industry highlight a key element of progress toward circularity: combining the strengths of mechanical recycling with innovations in advanced recycling technology. While the industry is working toward lowering the carbon footprint of advanced recycling, mechanical recycling still tends to have a lower impact on the environment. In short, it makes sense to mechanically recycle what we can, as there are markets for both types of materials. Many current initiatives support both markets.
For example, in October 2022, Cyclyx, ExxonMobil and LyondellBasell signed an agreement to advance the development on a plastic sorting scrap facility that will generate feedstock for mechanical and chemical recycling processes. Using both processes, the Cyclyx plastic sorting plant will produce custom-designed feedstock blends from bales of recovered plastic for reclaimers, including LyondellBasell and ExxonMobil. The companies expect commercial start-up to come in 2024.
Avangard Innovative and Honeywell are on a similar path, as Avangard will be the first U.S. company to use Honeywell’s UpCycle Process Technology in 2023. When its technology is used alongside mechanical recycling and other chemical processes, Honeywell intends to increase the amount of recyclable post-use plastic to 90%.
Sorting Technology Is Getting Smarter
The backbone of any recycling infrastructure is sorting equipment, which helps determine which materials will be recycled and how. As the demand for recycling has increased and more materials are making their way to plants, the need for more efficient and accurate sorting technology has grown — and technology companies have been racing to meet the need.
Optical sorting equipment has long been a staple in recycling, and the market is growing quickly — experts predict it will reach $3.8 billion by 2027, increasing at 9.3% per year. One primary indicator of this growth is the proliferation of automation in primary optical sorter target industries, such as recycling.
One company making waves in sorting technology is Machinex, which uses hyperspectral camera technology in its optical units. Compared to traditional optical sensor technologies, hyperspectral cameras improve the detection of new packaging and identify material with higher accuracy, which leads to increased recovery, for more materials.
Robotics is also making an impact. AMP Cortex, AMP Robotics’ system, automates the identification and sorting processes for recyclables from mixed materials, performing up to 80 picks per minute with up to 99% accuracy. This technology is huge for recycling plants getting more and more material to sort through.
Increasing the Ease of Recycling
Of course, sorting and recycling technology can only make an impact if the materials themselves make it to the machines. An essential part of transforming waste is collecting it, and Waste Management and Dow have teamed up to ensure that more recyclable materials make their way from citizens’ homes to recycling plants.
As the first major residential plastic film recycling program rolls out in select markets, consumers will be able to recycle hard-to-recycle plastic films directly in their curbside recycling. Before this launch, only 1% of U.S. households had access to curbside plastic film recycling. Considering that film is the plastic material with the lowest overall recycling rate, it’s clear why the program is expected to help Waste Management divert more than 120,000 metric tons of plastic film from landfills each year.
Closing the Loop
Efforts to close the loop on the circular economy must encompass collection, sorting, recycling and then back to the beginning again as more recycled materials make their way into the hands of consumers. Transforming waste for a more sustainable future requires companies all along the value chain to contribute with innovation and advancement — and although we have a long way to go, I think it’s clear that we’re well on our way.
Jen Ronk is Senior Sustainability Manager, North America at Dow.
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