Advancing plastics recycling and reducing CO2: Driving transformational change

clock • 6 min read

Today we celebrate Global Recycling Day, March 18th. It is a day for the world to come together and put the planet first. But it is also a significant moment for us at Dow, as a plastics manufacturer, to reflect on what recycling means for us and our future.

Climate change and environmental degradation are the defining challenges of our time. Industry, policymakers and citizens alike know that now, more than ever, transformational change is urgently needed to tackle these existential threats to our planet. We all have a responsibility and role to play, and working collectively across industries and societies, will be key to achieving this task.

At Dow, as a leading materials company, we know we have a responsibility to take this challenge seriously and take urgent action - to become carbon neutral and stop plastic going to waste. And we believe we have the ambition, expertise, capability, scale, and imagination to make a difference.

To hold ourselves accountable, we have set ourselves a series of ambitious global targets. These include reducing our net annual carbon emissions by five million metric tons by 2030 on the road to becoming carbon neutral by 2050; enabling one million metric tons of plastic to be collected, reused or recycled by 2030; and enabling 100 per cent of Dow products sold into packaging applications to be reusable or recyclable by 2035.

While many of these goals might feel far away, we know we need to start now to enact the meaningful change needed.

A radical redesign  

To achieve our carbon reduction targets, incremental improvements are no longer enough. We need to radically redesign how we make plastic. This means looking at plastic production from all angles - how we power the plants which make our plastics; the raw materials that go into our plastics and, most importantly, how we make our plastics. The production process for plastics hasn't changed fundamentally in decades and that's something we want to change.

We've already made substantial strides on this journey and are looking at the ways in which we can use new cleaner and green technologies to power all our European plants. Half of our site in Tarragona, Spain is now powered by 100 per cent renewable sources - the equivalent of taking around 23,000 passenger cards off the road each year.  

We're also looking at the raw materials (feedstocks) that are used to produce our plastics and how we can do that with lowest carbon footprint, by using sustainably sourced and certified feedstocks. We're working on several sourcing options, buying raw materials from their bio-based waste and residue portfolios to create our plastics. This means we can make plastics from renewable resources with a lower CO2 footprint than from fossil fuels and ensures we're not competing with the food chain. This is an exciting opportunity which we will continue to scale.

In 2020 we announced an exciting new partnership with Shell to transform our furnaces, which currently rely on heat from fossil fuels, into electric ones which can be powered by clean energy. The 'electrification' of crackers has been tested in laboratory conditions, but not previously scaled. But if we can solve this challenge, it could cut our cracker emissions by 90 per cent and if taken together with renewable energy, by 100 per cent. This is genuinely ground-breaking.

Minimising resources

Action on climate change is not just about the production process. How plastics are used and then reused or recycled is an essential component.  

We know that the role of plastic in our society has often taken centre stage in many of the debates around climate change. Many of us have seen the shocking images of plastic waste in our natural environment. This is unacceptable. While the widespread use of plastic has revolutionised our lives, we as a society, have become far too reliant on its convenience.

But plastic also has many benefits which contribute to the protection of our planet. Plastic packaging enables us to protect products and reduce food waste. And as a result, we reduce CO2 emissions too. We believe that the solution to the current plastic waste challenge is not to ban plastics but make plastic too valuable to be lost as waste and respect the pivotal role plastics play in our world when they are managed correctly.

Plastics can have a lower total environmental impact and that is why we're working to lead the change from a linear to a circular economy.

A circular economy

To achieve a circular economy, we need to ensure that we are designing products to be recyclable, ensuring they are actually recycled and enable packaging from recycling content.

Designing more products that are recyclable is the lynchpin for the recycling system - and where we can have a big impact. That's why we're focused on working with partners across the value chain to accelerate and commercialise designs for packaging. In fact, the EU has a target that all plastic packaging should be reusable or recyclable in a cost-effective manner by 2030 and yet many brand owners are just a few years away from this goal. That's exciting and we want to help them get there sooner.

Significant innovation and transformational change is what can help us truly make a difference. While mechanical recycling remains a strong focus at Dow, we're also investing heavily in innovation to enable recycled content in new packaging through advanced recycling.

Advanced recycling allows waste to retain its value and become infinitely recyclable, something that can't be achieved with the simpler process of mechanical recycling. It enables us to take back a far greater range of waste plastic, including hard to recycle plastics, and turn it back into virgin polymers - therefore diverting it from incineration or landfill. There is no compromise on what advanced recycling can be used for and crucially it works for food packaging, which can't be achieved through mechanical recycling.

We are also pursuing mechanical recycling solutions which are complementary to circularity offered by advanced recycling. Mechanical recycling allows us to take back a limited range of waste plastic that is then used in different plastic products. Mechanical recycling is currently the primary form of recycling in Europe representing more than 99 per cent of recycling volumes. It also remains an important part of our recycling strategy and we are continuing to invest in new technologies to produce high-quality resins with plastic waste content.

For example, Dow has developed an innovative new resin made with 70 per cent recycled plastic called AGILITY™ CE. It's the first post-consumer recycled (PCR) product offering of Dow's plastics circularity portfolio to incorporate a high percentage of post-consumer plastic waste. This new resin consists of a low-density polyethylene (LDPE) into which recycled plastic shrink film is incorporated without sacrificing material quality and functionality in the final application.

Achieving this once-in-a-generation task will require relentless innovation and expertise. It won't be easy, but I am confident that Dow, along with others, will rise to the challenge. This is not something we can do in isolation so continuing to work with our partners and creating new long-term relationships with industry experts and organisations across the value chain will be essential in leading the most coordinated and effective approach to transformational change. Science and technology will hold many of the answers to the challenges we face, and it is with this in mind that we pursue our roadmap for sustainability.

We recognise we occupy a position of great responsibility and strength and can have a real impact of the way the world uses plastics, for the better. Along with other producers, brand owners and governments, we will make a major impact on waste within the next 10 years and transform the relationship we all have with plastics for the good of our society and our planet.

See the video here to find out more about Dow's drive for a circular economy for plastics.

Marco ten Bruggencate is commercial vice president for packaging & specialty plastics EMEA at Dow.

This article was sponsored by Dow.

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