New partnerships scale solutions to the climate crisis

Coalitions and collaborations are critical to achieve rapid and sustainable environmental progress. An ability to partner up and down the value chain is accelerating Dow’s own sustainability journey.

If the environmental crisis has one parallel with the pandemic, it is the role that partnerships have played in overcoming complex global challenges. Over the last year, rival healthcare companies have collaborated on the research. Brands from fashion houses to sports clubs have lent their expertise, resources and infrastructure to the public health emergency. Nations are now providing allocations of vaccines to fellow countries to help to combat the pandemic. The same spirit of teamwork is necessary to tackle the environmental crisis, the starkest human challenge of the 21st century.

“One thing we have learned is that the sustainability challenge is too big for any one company to solve,” says Han Zhang, Asia-Pacific sustainability director for packaging and speciality plastics at Dow. “We are a large company that has been working on these issues for 20 years and we know we cannot solve them alone. We need to partner with others, including NGOs, government agencies and even competitors.”

Partnership models allow individuals to be more than the sum of their parts by pooling capabilities and respective comparative advantages.

“It is easier today to see how the product you recycle has a value, and you have more business models that show how that could happen,” says Kaj Embrén, a Swedish sustainability coach. “That’s why you need to think outside of the box, and to engage with different actors than you would normally do business with.”

One model favoured by Dow is to create platforms that give innovators access to the company’s technical infrastructure and expertise. For instance, Dow Pack Studios gives value chain partners, including brands, designers and academic researchers, facilities to help them to conceive, develop and test sustainability solutions on sites stretching from São Paulo to Shanghai. The studios give partners access to prototyping tools, testing equipment and a network of experts to conceive and develop innovations, notably those that reduce the weight and thickness of materials to lower the packaging industry’s environmental footprint.

Dow has also lent its backing to global platforms that bring together major companies in a systematic way at scale. This includes its role as a founding backer of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, an international consortium that has committed an initial US$1bn to back projects that reduce plastic leakage and waste, especially in vulnerable geographies and the oceans. Ventures include waste-collection infrastructure, scaling up technologies that facilitate recycling and recovery of plastics, education and outreach to mobilise government, business and community engagement, and clean-up efforts in significant waste conduits, such as polluted rivers that are carrying plastics into the ocean. Dow is also a backer, along with LyondellBasell and NOVA Chemicals, of the Closed Loop Circular Plastics Fund, a new initiative aiming to deploy US$100m to projects in the US and Canada that improve recycling logistics, equipment and infrastructure.

Scaling innovation
An effective circular economy requires interaction between large, multinational corporations and small start-ups, both being laser-focused on fixing specific problems in the plastics value chain. SMEs are often nimbler than large corporations when it comes to tinkering with new technologies and are more comfortable in taking risks. But they struggle to scale up their innovations to have a meaningful impact.

“Our work was too new for the conventional financing and investment community to back,” says Steve Mahon, chief executive officer of UK-based Mura Technology, which pioneered a new chemical process that turns waste plastic back into “virgin-equivalent” chemicals and oils, thereby reducing waste and lowering demand for new fossil fuel-based resources in the chemicals industry. “It is really the people in the industry who could understand what we were doing, who could ask the difficult and sensible questions.”

Mr Mahon believes that companies of the size of Dow “have a huge role to play because they can leverage their distribution network and take an innovation to market much faster than we can.”

Mura, with investment from Dow, is now building its first plant in Teesside, UK, to roll out Mura’s innovation, with the 20,000-tonnes/year facility expected to become operational in 2022. Eventually, the company expects to recycle up to 80,000 tonnes/year of waste, which Dow plans to use as virgin-grade plastics for packing products.1

The scale that Dow offers smaller partners is not just resources and infrastructure, but also an enormous global workforce. “Our partners may only have ten or 20 people and lack all the skills for success. By partnering with Dow and leveraging our employees’ skills and passion, we can make things happen together,” says Mr Zhang.
Asia clean-up
The company is heavily focused on building partnerships in the Asia region, which is experiencing high rates of waste and pollution. Education and outreach are significant in its regional strategy. In Indonesia, Dow launched Project MASARO, a collaboration with Professor Zainal Abidin at Bandung Institute of Technology, which has engaged 2,000 students and teachers in recycling practices and waste-management behaviours, working to create a closed-loop, circular economy in the country.2

“We educated the villagers on how to do proper waste management and how to segregate waste, and we worked with Professor Abidin to develop technology like composting to reduce waste and bring value back to local communities,” says Mr Zhang.

Through recapturing more waste, Dow is also helping to support efforts to improve infrastructure in the region. In partnership with dairy brand Shiny Meadow, the company helped to build China’s first ever “plastic road”, made with polymer-modified asphalt from recycled plastic milk bottles.3 “The whole event was broadcast on TikTok, and that’s a new way to engage the general public,” says Mr Zhang. “Within two hours, 1.5 million people watched the live stream, and after that there was a lot of media coverage.”
In India, Dow has worked with local tech company Recykal and non-profit partner Keshav Sita Memorial Foundation Trust to create a first-of-its-kind digital waste-management platform called Rethink+, a take-back programme to prevent post-consumer plastic waste from going to landfills by digitally connecting waste generators, aggregators, processors and recyclers. The company is also collaborating on a project to facilitate construction of plastic waste-based roads in Pune and Bangalore with two partners, leading to the building of 50 km of road using plastics otherwise destined for landfill or incineration, showing how circular economy innovation can both cut waste and tackle real-world problems at the same time.
The ecological problems facing the world are far beyond the capabilities of any one actor to solve. Through partnership, all stakeholders, large and small, government or private, can be more than the sum of their parts. From São Paulo to Pune, Dow is playing its role by offering its infrastructure as an incubator for innovation, leveraging its facilities to help start-ups scale recycling innovations, and putting its time, talent and resources into global alliances to achieve a truly circular economy.
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