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Purpose and People

How Dow seeks to turn plastic waste into a circular resource

The company's global sustainability director addresses her passion for social innovation, her philosophy for investments and what makes for successful collaboration.

Haley Lowry, global sustainability director at Dow, has big plans for plastic.

Representing one of the largest plastics producers in the world, she is working to create new systems, products and technologies — such as advanced recycling and finding new uses for recycled plastics — that are intended to scale the circular life of plastics, creating new revenue streams while lifting people out of poverty. We talked about her efforts at Dow to create paths to reducing plastic pollution. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for clarity and length.

Shannon Houde: You’ve spent the last 14 years of your career at Dow. Tell me what has made you stay, and what you’re working on these days.

Haley Lowry: I think of myself as a social innovation intrapreneur, someone who uses the knowledge and experience of the company to help it advance toward a more sustainable future. Dow has provided me with a space where I can thrive in that role and solve critical problems.

Plastic presents one of the biggest challenges — and opportunities — of our generation. Never have we seen an issue rise so quickly to the forefront of the world’s focus, amplified as it has been through social media. It gives me hope that we can solve this, in much the same way that we managed to repair the ozone layer.

The solution to plastic pollution requires collaboration between the private and public sectors in ways that aren’t always convenient or comfortable, but we can do it.

Houde: What is it about plastic waste in the environment that calls for global collaboration? 

Lowry: Too much plastic enters our natural environment. That’s unacceptable. It’s also unacceptable to view this valuable material as waste in the first place. That’s the thinking of a linear economy. As we transform to a circular economy, we’re forced not only to think about waste as a resource but also to change business models, logistics, consumption behaviors, policy and infrastructure.

Never have we seen an issue rise so quickly to the forefront of the world’s focus, amplified as it has been through social media.
Moreover, while this is a global issue, it requires localized solutions. Developing countries lack the infrastructure to keep plastic waste out of the environment, while developed countries are scrambling to find markets for their waste after China’s bans. The solutions will be different from one location to the next. 

Finally, no one company, part of the value chain or sector can solve this. Historically the private sector tended to work with one step next to them in the value chain — direct customers and suppliers — and this completely shifts in a circular economy. Collaboration becomes essential.

Houde: Have you seen any examples of this type of collaboration working well? 

Lowry: The Alliance to End Plastic Waste is a great example. It’s a coalition of more than 40 companies including brands, plastic and packaging producers and waste managers. It has committed $1.5 billion toward solving plastic pollution, focusing on scalable solutions for infrastructure, innovation, education and cleanups. While we’re just getting started, the companies involved, including Dow, are finding that there’s a lot we can learn from each other.

Houde: Walk me through this intersection between business and social sectors connecting with plastic waste issues.

Lowry: Let’s consider the example of Recycling for a Change, a program which Dow developed in concert with our partners Boomera (a BCorp) and NGO Fundación Avina in Brazil.

Recycling for a Change uses a training, professional development and strategic support model that enables waste-picker cooperatives to become more sustainable and profitable while providing the highest quality materials to enhance the plastics recycling value chain.

Recycling for a Change supports local entrepreneurship and economically empowers individuals, families and communities. Halfway through the project so far, we’ve already seen a 70 percent improvement in productivity, a 50 percent increase in sales and an increase in workers’ monthly salaries above minimum wage.

Houde: What do these collaborations look like when framed with specific issue efforts such as food waste and plastics in nature?

Lowry: I’ve seen these two issues become one opportunity in our work with the Houston food bank network. We started with a desire to provide more nutritious food to food-insecure people, but access to fresh produce was expensive and hampered by shelf-life constraints and distribution limitations. At the same time, there was so much food waste. A retailer would get a truckload of cucumbers, for example, and 10 percent of it would be spoiled.

So, along with the Montgomery County Food Bank, we co-founded the Produce Rescue Center in April 2017. Everyone in the value chain had something to gain. The retailer didn’t have to pay to send lost food to a landfill and could send it to the center for composting for a lower, tax-deductible fee. The good produce was packaged, extending shelf life by 20 days. And the plastic is fully recyclable.

We’ve rescued 7 million pounds of food from the landfill this year and provided 5.8 million nutritious meals to food-insecure people since we started.

Houde: Is there a role for philanthropy? How have you aligned this to better enable partnerships and collaborations?

Lowry: There’s certainly a role for philanthropy, and at Dow, we’ve launched a Dow Impact Fund that goes to projects that demonstrate a social, environmental and business impact. We’ve had to work on building a culture of intrapreneurship to get submissions from our organizations around the world on critical projects.

All projects must have external partners, especially an NGO in the local region, for maximum implementation. Over three years, we’ve allocated $5 million to 25 projects. We have more progress to make, but this is a step in the right direction to catalyzing philanthropic dollars for greater impact.

Houde: What advice would you give a fellow sustainability practitioner who wants to ramp up the plastics agenda within their company?

Lowry: Don’t give up. This kind of effort often falls into one of two buckets. In one bucket, you have a company working on sustainability but nobody cares about it, so you can shape the effort the way you want it, but with limited resources. In the other bucket, the project is your CEO’s top agenda item, so you get the resources you need but have less latitude in shaping the agenda because you’re juggling a lot of other opinions. Regardless of which bucket you’re in, work with your organization to evolve through these transitions.

We’ve had to work on building a culture of intrapreneurship to get submissions from our organizations around the world on critical projects.
Secondly, give your colleagues opportunities to act and participate.

The plastic waste issue is part of a much larger waste management issue, especially in developing countries. Ineffective waste management practices on land lead to waste washing into rivers and eventually into the ocean. Everyone can participate in advancing recycling options, helping to collect waste, or participating in environmental cleanups in your regions.

Helping employees at your companies see that they can make a difference is important, and helping them see the impact of that work will keep them engaged and coming back to help even more.

Above all, keep pushing the boundaries. It can seem like a long, daunting journey, so celebrate every win you get and just keep moving.

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