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Episode 130: Stop the Waste and Close the Loop with Dow (Transcript)

November 15, 2021

23 Min Read
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[00:00:00] Liz Bothwell: Hi everyone, welcome to Waste360's Nothing Wasted Podcast. On every episode, we invite the most interesting people in waste recycling and organics to sit down with us and chat candidly about their thoughts, their work, this unique industry and so much more. Thanks for listening and enjoy this episode.

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[00:00:27] Liz: Hi everyone. This is Liz Bothwell from Waste360 with Julie Zaniewski, Director of Sustainability at Dow. Welcome, Julie. Thanks for being on the show today. 

[00:00:38] Julie Zaniewski: Hi, Liz. Thanks for having me. Good to be here.

[00:00:42] Liz: Julie, we normally set the stage, so I'd love to hear a little bit about your background and your journey into the world of sustainability.

[00:00:50] Julie: Sure. I started several years ago in the packaging industry, primarily in the brand space. I've worked for Kraft Foods, Reckitt Benckiser, and I did about a sixteen-year jaunt with Unilever. I'm always focused on the packaging industry, whether it's design technology development and execution. In the last few years at Unilever, I was solely focused on sustainable packaging.

That led me into this space really heavily focused on recycling, waste reduction, and responsible packaging. Which of course, then led me to Dow and this organization, focusing on all the different innovations and technologies that we can bring forward to what we call, Stop the Waste, Close the Loop, and really creating that circular economy.

[00:01:52] Liz: I love that. It sounds like you have the perfect background for that. I know that Dow has some aggressive sustainability targets for 2030, like a lot of other organizations. Can you dig into those a little bit and talk about those?

[00:02:05] Julie: Sure. As you probably just heard me say, Stop the Waste and Close the Loop. What that really means is it's really just that. To stop the waste, we've committed to collecting and recycling, reusing a million metric tons of plastics by 2030. We also plan to close the loop, which is really focused on enabling recyclability and circular economy. We're committed to a hundred percent of our products that we sell into packaging applications to be recyclable and reusable.

The big step for this industry and the organization, but certainly the right step, is and has been for several years, putting in place different measures that can help us move that forward. One of which is collection system. Supporting different collection systems, piloting different technologies and models. Not just with ourselves, but also with a number of coalitions and forums.

You'll see us quite often through different external forums organizing with like-minded organizations, trying to drive forward these collective measures to really shove forward, not just move forward, but really shove forward in this space to ensure that we are managing waste in a way that's responsible for all materials. That's a good portion of what we're looking at on the, Stop the Waste. There are certain programs I can talk through in a second.

Then, Close the Loop. We're focused on products and initiatives that enable recycling. We have recycle-ready technology, which essentially is taking materials and applications that have not been recyclable in the past, and using our compatibilizer systems, our material science expertise, to create what is essentially a mono-material application so that it is recyclable. The consumer may not see the difference but it meets those requirements, the product requirements, the distribution requirements, and also the recyclability requirements at the end of the day.

That's one aspect of it. Also, we have recycled content product that we have in our portfolio now. That's another element of ensuring that if we're going to make items recyclable, that there is a demand for that material. Currently, we have a low-density and linear-low density. We also work with Avangard Innovative who's our partner for our PCR product. We have a low and linear-low density polyethylene product, recycled PCR. We've worked with Avangard as they are the experts in the reach, the network, and the supply for that type of material.

Then we are able to work with the PCR to create, essentially, a one-pellet solution that can be used in a number of different applications. That could be liners, loop carriers, several different applications, shrink overwrap as well. The approach there is to ensure that the materials that are available, that's good, clean streams also have a place for them to go, that there's demand and stimulating that demand. That's been a great partnership and an exciting initiative that we've been a part of for the last year or so.

[00:06:03] Liz: That's great. That's such a key part of that. I know you have other interesting partners too, like the Recycling Partnership, Closed Loop, Rehrig, and even some CPG brands. Can you talk a little bit about those as well and how those relationships further all of your collective sustainability goals?

[00:06:21] Julie: Absolutely. Like you mentioned, we work with several like-minded organizations. Recycling Partnership obviously is one of them. They're very effective in generating action on the ground, so ensuring that communities, cities are educated in the recycling space. They provide education, I should say, and the toolkits to really make sure that recycling works on the ground. They're also very effective in getting those carts and trucks on the ground and really ensuring that there's equitable access across several communities and cities across the US.

We've worked with them in a number of different spaces. In particular, making sure what seems to be a very simple task, having carts available to everyone but it's not so simple. They, like I said, have been very effective in making sure that they can get those to the right communities. The ones that are needing that, and ensuring that waste management, garbage hauling, is managed at the same level as recycling. Recycling shouldn't necessarily be an add-on, it should be part of that whole system.

There's a cost to that and we've worked for them in a number of different ways to figure out innovative ways to lower the cost for cities to get those carts on the ground. One of them has been with the cities of Milwaukee and Baltimore along with our customer Rehrig, who produces carts. We donated resin to ensure that we could accelerate the use of several carts in those cities and Rehrig donated their production for those. What the result was, it was an innovative way to get those carts to those communities.

It tends to be a pretty high cost for cities and communities to get those carts on the ground and to get recycling programs moving. When we're able to lower those startup costs, that becomes very effective. We hope to see and do more of that. With the other organizations, Closed Loop is one that we've been working with recently around the circular plastics on this fund that we launched in May of this year along with LyondellBasell and NOVA.

We created this fund to focus on materials that need a specific infrastructure to promote recyclability. We see this happening in a number of different spaces, across different infrastructure initiatives. Typically, you'll see that focused on [unintelligible 00:09:22], "Infrastructure funds", that can focus on, I'll call it the health of the industry. Targeting projects and initiatives that can infuse capital across the system. This is very similar to that, but focusing on polyethylene and polypropylene, both rigid and flexible forms of it.

Why? Because as you're looking at prioritizing capital in this space, that isn't always the first place it goes. Being able to level out those opportunities for those materials that are still very valuable, but may not have the infrastructure in place to sort it, to capture it, also to optimize processing for those materials to produce a PCR, for example. The intention with that fund was to demonstrate that if you put capital into that space in different areas within the value chain, that you could create a strong sensible system.

We've been able to bring in more funders in that space. The intention is to hit a hundred million dollars for that fund, specifically for those materials, and to encourage, and stimulate circular economy for those. It'll work in tandem with funds, and other funding I should say. It isn't meant to operate on its own necessarily. It's meant to enable different systems, so that could be, like I said, a production of a PCR on that end of the value chain, or maybe even upstream where a MRF is looking to improve their contamination levels to better sort for different materials. That may mean another piece of equipment that they may not otherwise consider because they weren't necessarily able to focus their capital efforts there.

We're excited to see where this goes. It certainly developing quickly, and we've seen this type of model work very well. Both with Closed Loop's previous funds or infrastructure fund, as well as their beverage fund, which operates in a very similar manner, but for PET. We've also seen that work with other organizations on a global scale in different regions. Circulate Capital is another one that we've been involved in Southeast Asia that provides those types of funds, accelerates, and scales quite quickly.

We're hoping that this comes to life even faster than we're seeing it already, but we're excited to see what the next year brings in terms of projects and execution.

[00:12:19] Liz: I bet. You have a lot of great things happening. The partners you're working with, I love the focus that they have on it. For lack of a better word, I'm using Closed Loop, but it really is circular. They're funding things and then putting the materials back into the system and building the necessary infrastructure. I love to see that.

[00:12:40] Julie: Yes, there's also a sense too. We have ourselves, as well as many others, been involved in these forums, the coalitions, the pilots, that are all really, really important. We'll continue to do that because you really can't work out the bugs, and gather learnings, and learn from that for that next project without running those pilots, and really progressing in that sense.

What's that fund could do is give the scale to those pilots. The material we're covering for the future is a good example of a pilot that's working quite well, and is expanding where capital was put against different sorting mechanisms, newer technology with the intention of ensuring flexible materials could go into the curbside bins, and then they could be effectively sorted.

Where something like that is operating quite efficiently, they keep working towards improving, and improving, and improving on that. This type of funding or mechanism can help take that type of demonstration and be able to apply the right things to say the next version of that. It's just an example of how some of these funding mechanisms can be used in tandem with others.

Policy will be one of those pieces that will be critical to this whole puzzle, and we hope that these types of activities and initiatives can help provide that platform and the mechanism for real working transitional systems towards circular economy.

[00:14:26] Liz: That's great. Speaking of a circular economy, what does that mean to you? What does that look like?

[00:14:32] Julie: When I think of circular economy, I think can be interpreted in a number of different ways. If I think of how we have been living, and breathing, that it goes back to our Stop the Waste and Close the Loop commitments, and how those are working. We're thinking about materials that are very, very valuable, that flow through the system, but there are different mechanisms that may not be equipped quite yet to bring them back through.

For me, it's optimizing those materials all the way through the system so that they can be reused, recycled, and optimized for several cycles. That for me, that is a circular economy when it comes to plastics. Does that look like the same thing with different materials? It could, but maybe in different forms. Even with plastics, I think circular economy, it doesn't necessarily mean that those materials have to come back into the exact same application, for example.

I think ensuring that they don't go to landfill is key, and that you keep optimizing and bringing them in for the best use of those materials. It could be, say, a package that's been recycled. It may not go back into that same package, but it could go into pavement or it could go into a more durable application where it will be used for a longer cycle, but the intention really is to ensure that those materials are used in a responsible and repetitive manner that optimizes the system.

[00:16:20] Liz: Make sense. America Recycles Day is coming up, and I know you have a Rediscover Recycling campaign. I'd love to hear more about that.

[00:16:30] Julie: Yes. We get involved in America Recycles Day every year. It's quite honestly a fun time of year where there's a lot of attention put on that day, but we look at it as every day. It just gives a level of awareness that's helpful, and exciting for the recycling industry.

We've seen it grow more, and more. We use it as an opportunity to educate folks around rediscover recycling. America Recycled Day we've kind of turned into America recycled month. You'll see that we'll have a number of different media campaigns, educational pieces that we hope that everyone will have access to, and we will plan to have that available throughout the month, not just on America Recycles Day on the 15th. We call it rediscover recycling, and we're focusing on educating consumers, emphasizing the need for circularity, as well as energizing folks.

We want to make sure people get excited about this. We've seen that through previous activities around America Recycled Day, I think it was a couple of years ago. We did a recycling challenge. A number of videos that really went viral where folks were creating their own version of recycling, and showing folks what they were doing, how they were doing it. It was a lot of fun, a lot of great versions of that across many different companies and organizations. That's the type of energy that we'd like to see, and we hope to recreate that every time at this time of year.

You'll see a number of activities around social media. We'll highlight a number of the projects that we have happening just to demonstrate what a recycling can really look like. The palpable versions of recycling, and in different forms. Like I said, maybe it's not a bottle-to-bottle or package-to-package, but there are a number of different spaces where it can be very useful, and impactful, and I can sometimes be much simpler than we think it could be. We'll also have some consultant, or an expert around packaging who's going to do some videos for us, and some messages. I'll leave it as a little teaser there.

A number of activities around podcasts, and even a clubhouse conversation with Russell Cooper and Jennifer Rock on November 15th, I believe. So make sure you tune in, and you'll see a number of different activities, like I said, through the month. I want to say we're going to run this through December 10th or so. We hope people will tune in, and maybe learn a few things.

[00:19:42] Liz: I'm sure they will, and it's great that it's beyond the day and you're actually making a month out of it. That's awesome. Many of our listeners handle products and materials at the end of their life. They often say that one solution would be to get the manufacturers and recyclers together earlier in the process, and bring them to the table together so that they can figure out what truly is reusable and recyclable. Do you see this happening more now coming from your [inaudible 00:20:12] background in packaging and where you are now?

[00:20:16] Julie: Absolutely. When I started in the packaging world, no one really had that view beyond the shopping cart, and the usage of a consumer in their pantry, in their bathroom, in the refrigerator. That was really the sole focus we considered design for distribution, and primary objective with the package is to make sure that it contains the product and it ensures its safety, and delivers the right shelf life, for example, in the convenience to a consumer, but that has certainly evolved over the past, or at least decade.

It's really started to accelerate, I would say, in the last few years for all materials. It's not about that linear system, and I know we've all heard that several times, it's about ensuring one that you're thinking beyond the home, and you're thinking beyond the kitchen, or the bathroom, or where those materials or those products are used. It's not just the consumer convenience of use, it's also the consumer convenience of recycling, understanding what they're supposed to do with that. The labeling of it, ensuring that they have the access to recycle said product and package in the right bin, in the right location to ensure that it is recycled.

There's also an energy from consumers in that space. They know the power of their dollar and they want to use it for good, and so they're looking for those better options so that they feel and know that they are doing the right thing with their purchasing dollars, and ensuring that they're able to, in many cases, use that for recycled content. That whole design piece of it has evolved from that very upfront value chain piece just essentially get it to the consumer, and has evolved to the consumers interaction beyond just the initial views.

It's also allowing for those materials and those packages to ensure they can come back and utilize that material. I see that across the Board, both from a consumer brand perspective, as well as here at Dow, and making sure that the resources are there for that, that the collection models are there, that there's a whole system of working. There's this massive move towards pre-competitive collaboration. It's less holding products and understanding to the chest, then sharing that information and ensuring that those technologies or those best practices can be shared across different materials, and packaging systems, because we know that it doesn't really help the whole system if just one company or one brand is doing that, you need the scale of many others.

I think that's probably one of the biggest differences versus a 20 years ago when I started in the industry, and the focus was on what can we do with our particular product and without didn't need that consideration of other factors. We see that also in terms of our recycle-ready approach, as I mentioned earlier, and we've also equipped our systems and our organization with that collaboration effort. We have pack studios, which is essentially a location where we can bring customers, brand owners in, and we can work together to develop these recyclable and circular applications.

It's almost like this prototype version of creating these circular packages or circular system. Certainly this whole design space has evolved tremendously, and I expect it to accelerate even more. Especially with some regulations coming through recently, as well as what we anticipate over the next, I'll say, 10 years in terms of requirements, and quite honestly, company commitment. 

Many companies, they're not waiting for a regulation to tell them that they have to do something in this space. They see the good and the opportunity, and have placed those commitments out there to ensure that recycled content is part of their portfolio. That bio-based is part of their portfolio, and ensuring that they're creating these circular systems, even within their own organization. I'm really excited to see what the next few years bring.

[00:25:13] Liz: Well, that's exciting that you have that studio there too, and that's important work that you're doing.

[00:25:18] Julie: Well, we think so, and we hope so. We hope to see a lot more of this happen in the next five to 10 years, as we develop more of these systems, and they scale, and you start to see this really transformational effort across the whole industry.

[00:25:41] Liz: I know you spoke a little bit about rigid versus flexible packaging and plastics. Do you think that the MRFs will be able to handle more flexible packaging? Or will that responsibility really be on us to make sure that we take it with the bring back programs and things like that? Where do you see that evolving?

[00:26:03] Julie: I think there's going to be both. It really depends, I think, on the geography, the system, and the accessibility. Ideally, we would love to see everything going into a recycling bin, and sorted out a MRFs into very proper bales and then converted further down the line. Someday I believe we'll get there. In the meantime, there are all these other different models that may make more sense, say in a city where-- multifamily living, where they don't necessarily have physical bins that each family has or household has.

You have to adjust what your model looks like for those locations as communities, and work that through the system as necessary. It might be a bridging opportunity to get to that ideal phase, but I think we have healthy systems where they exist. Door drop-off where it does exist, there is an increase in demand for that type of product. The same goes for materials that are going through a MRFs. Let's say the materials recovery for the future, that type of product where it's a [unintelligible 00:27:25] made of flexible plastic packaging.

There are markets for that. I think we'll continue to see the growth in those markets, and that eventually will feedback into the system the economic opportunities, and to move it to a totally circular system. Again, I think it has some evolution to be had, but certainly, there's no lack of interest or a demand on the recycling side to ensure that those materials get pulled through.

[00:28:01] Liz: Definitely. What advice would you have to the next generation of professionals getting into sustainability?

[00:28:07] Julie: I think as long as young professionals look at what they are focused on as an opportunity, and they think about it from a purposeful space. If it's a material that they're focused on, if it's an approach that they're focused on, that it's not just the dollars and cents behind it, it's also the overall impact and a purpose that is driving that activity. I think the more that we look at using business for good and using these types of initiatives and resources for good, that generates momentum from the inside out.

You get the most out of your people that way. You get the most out of your system that way. You get the most out of your resources that way. Typically, you find folks really truly believe in one system or one approach versus another. I think that is important to be able to embrace that and harness it with your organization with new people. That could look like a number of different things, but because I see I have a lot of people come to me that are looking at how do I get more involved in sustainability? What does that mean to you? What does that mean to me?

I'll try to help them define what that means for them. It could be about purpose, what kind of purpose do they see them driving? Are they driving economic improvement? Are they looking for some personal validation in terms of, "Am I doing the right thing?" Those are the kinds of things I think are really the biggest motivators and drivers of that next generation, and the lead from a much different place than many of us have. I still see it with many of the others. Not necessarily just the young professionals, but certainly there is an impactful element to the sustainable leadership that's coming forward. That's another space that I really look forward to seeing that coming to life and really evolving over the next few years.

[00:30:16] Liz: That's great advice. I love that you're so passionate about the work you're doing. I'd love to hear what's next for Dow, and for you.

[00:30:24] Julie: At Dow here we have no shortage of activities going on. We continue to develop initiatives in this space to stop the waste and close the lid, but also protect the climate. Focused on de-carbonization of the industry, and really moving forward in terms of a holistic sense. We talk about recycling, we talk about bio, but we also need to consider the whole system. I see a lot of that activity developing over the next few years, and I think we have great leadership from the top, who are very motivated to make sure that we move in the right direction as a whole.

I'm happy to be part of that journey. I'm an import for the ride, and I'm really excited to see in here all these different organizations moving in that same direction. It's one of these things where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I see that a lot more just in the past few years across the industry, and breaking down silos, continuing to drive holistic measures that enable those sorts of their systems. I plan to be a big part of that, and I'm excited to be a big part of that. Looking forward to it.

[00:31:59] Liz: That's fantastic, and you hit the nail on the head. It takes everyone to get to where we need to go, and it's a big task, but we will get there and progress is being made daily.

[00:32:09] Julie: It's a huge task, but it's one that we have to take on. Go big or go home.

[00:32:16] Liz: I love that.

[00:32:19] Julie: I think this has been great. I'm not always a big podcast person, so this is a good conversation and an easy conversation. Thank you for making it as such.

[00:32:32] Liz: No, thank you. I appreciate it, and you shared so much. Congrats on all you're doing and the important work that you guys are doing, and thanks for sharing so much. I look forward to keeping in touch with a fellow Connecticut person, and of course, seeing what you're doing once all your America Recycles Day stuff is up. Well, thank you all, and especially Julie, thank you for the great conversation.

[00:32:56] Julie: Well, thank you. Much appreciated and very nice meeting you. Hopefully, we can connect again soon. Okay?

[00:33:02] Liz: Okay. Sounds great. I would love to.

[00:33:03] Julie: All right. Great. Thanks a lot, Liz. Bye-bye.

[00:33:05] Liz: Bye, thank you. Thank you for listening. It would mean the world if you would take a moment to rate or review this podcast. If you share it with us on one of our social networks, we are giving out some fun Nothing WastedPodcast swag. Just tag us and see what you get. Thanks so much.

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