Jeff Wooster, Global Sustainability Director, Dow Packaging & Specialty Plastics
What are the biggest sustainability challenges we currently face in the household and cleaning products industry?
There are two important areas of focus in the household and cleaning products supply chain. One is the concern over the safety and health impact from the actual chemicals being used to make the products. The other is packaging – the amount of packaging, the type of packaging – consumers don’t like to see things that are over-packaged. They like to see things that are recyclable and easy to use.
What is Dow doing to respond?
On the packaging side, we are working to make sure that the plastics that we sell into the marketplace, and the packaging that gets designed for use – whether it be in the home or the businesses – to make sure that that it’s designed to be as efficient and effective as possible. Of course the most important thing is to make sure that it delivers the product in a safe and effective way. Beyond that, we work hard to make sure that the packaging is recyclable and that it has as many positive environmental benefits as possible.
How is Dow contributing towards creating a more circular economy?
We think it’s important to make sure that we get maximum value from the resources that we invest in creating – for example, when we take raw material feedstocks and turn those into plastics that are used for making bottles. We want to make sure that those materials can continue to benefit society by recapturing the packaging after the consumer is done with the product, and putting that packaging back into the value chain where it can be used again to make packaging or another product. This is to ensure that the inherent and intrinsic value of the polymer is captured it and reused as part of the circular economy.
How do you see the industry coming together to tackle these challenges?
For the circular economy specifically, it is absolutely critical that we work collaboratively because it takes a number of partners in the supply chain working together to make it work. We have to design the materials the right way, manufacture the product and use it in the right way. And after we supply a packaged product, we have to communicate with the consumer what to do with the package when they’re done with the product. And then we have to have a system in place to collect that material, reprocess it, and put it back into another application. So that's a lot of companies, and in some cases government units, and other types of organizations; all of these people have to work together to create a system that effectively manages the resources to the benefit of society. It’s really the creation of a system that works to the benefit of all, that's the tricky part of creating a circular economy.
Traditionally, companies are used to optimizing their own operations. So the customer thinks about what their customers need, and thinks about what the suppliers can give them. And then with those boundary conditions set, they optimize their own operation within the circular economy. We need to have companies thinking many more steps downstream, and perhaps many more steps upstream in making sure that everybody's working together to create an entire ecosystem that really facilitates or enables the circular economy to happen. We have worked hard to put together industry consortiums and collaborations of different types to help facilitate that – we think it’s absolutely critical to our industry and for society, and it’s something that we’re fully committed to working towards as evidenced by our 2025 sustainability goals. Creating a more circular economy is something that we work on every day. It’s not an easy thing to do, but we’re happy to report that many other companies are joining us in that fight.
Tell me more about Dow’s 2025 sustainability goals?
We have 7 goals and they cover a range of topics, including making sure that our own operations are as sustainable as they can be. But also focusing on some external things. For example driving a circular economy, implementing many major cross-value chain initiatives that help facilitate these ecosystems that are so important in developing a circular economy. We have a valuing nature goal that says we’ll help figure out how to understand and take advantage of the value of using natural ecosystems in providing value to businesses. Those are things that we think we need to pay more attention to in the future.
In my role, I’m most focused on the circular economy. Within our plastics business, we’ve put a major emphasis on this. We’ve hired new people, and put new teams in place to work on circular economy initiatives. The circular economy is one of the top two objectives of our business, alongside keeping plastic waste out of the environment.
What are you hearing most from your customers (for example, CPGs) in terms of industry focus and asks?
Our customers are asking us to create products and to help them create that system that allows for circularity. We know that consumers don’t like throwing away their packaging, we know they don’t like that guilty feeling of being wasteful, whether it's with the packaging or the products that they use. But at the same time, they need the functionality and performance of all the items that they purchase, and the convenience of the packaging they use. So I think it’s the industry’s job to figure out a way to continue to provide all the performance and the convenience that the consumer demands, and at the same time, give them a better environmental story by making the packaging more circular, by making sure that the ingredients are as safe and effective as they can be, and doing all the other things that we can do to improve operations and our supply chain.
What does Dow hope to achieve, and what can we see happening over the next few years with regards to the future of cleaning products?
Dow has stated publicly that we are working on a number of projects to drive more circularity and the plastics that we manufacture that can be used for packaging. We have announced a number of initiatives to help protect the environment by keeping plastic waste from getting into the environment. One of those is the launch of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste which is happened in January of 2019. We have another number of inditiatives that we collaborate on globally – all of those really designed to improve the lifecycle performance of our products.
We know that it’s our responsibility to work with our value chain partners and that includes the companies that put cleaning products on the marketplace. We want to collaborate with those companies to that put cleaning products onto the marketplace to create the systems that serve the consumers in the best way possible. We can’t do it alone – we need partnerships, collaboration and help from everyone in the industry so I’m excited to talk to people in the cleaning industry to discuss how we can work together to advance our goals.
Anything you’d like to add?
I think one thing that's important to remember is that we have to hear a lot of criticisms of different types of materials and packaging in general. You hear a fair amount in the media or on social media – for example, we don’t like this refillable pouch for our laundry soap because we can’t recycle the pouch. It’s important that we don’t forget about the other benefits of the pouch, in terms of not having to deliver the primary package and being able to reduce the impact of the production of the product in the first place. Understanding the complexity of the system is something that’s difficult to ask the consumer to do on their own.
Companies need to think of new ways to communicate both the value and importance of what they’re doing to help protect the environment, people’s health, and creating the most efficient solutions possible. They need to do this while also telling them about the things that they are doing to address the issues that are critically important, like climate change, plastic waste in the environment, etc. I think it’s the industry’s responsibility to work on both parts of those, and I’m happy to say that Dow is committed to working on both of these. I certainly applaud companies that are working on both initiatives as well. I think that sometimes if we work in one space or the other, we tend to forget the other one. And it’s important for us to be a little more holistic in our thinking. If a consumer says that they want a more recyclable package – we certainly are working to increase the recyclability and improve the recycling system for all kinds of materials and all kinds of packaging, however it would be a mistake for us to take away a product because it lacks one particularly attribute, when it might deliver 5-10+ other really positive, and beneficial, attributes that are important to the consumer and to the delivery of the product. The consumer might not mention every important attribute in a survey, but as business leaders we still need to provide the right balance of performance attributes.