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Dow's sustainability manager looks at big picture for package design

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May 23, 2013

NEW ORLEANS — You can make a package from recycled material, reduce the weight by 50 percent and ensure that it’s reusable. But that’s not always enough to make it sustainable.

True sustainability requires looking at everything and considering the entire life cycle, said Erica Ocampo, sustainability and advocacy manager at Dow Chemical Co.

An optimal package maximizes both the mission of the package and the economic and environmental efficiency. Sustainability is all about finding a balance between people, planet and profit, she said, in a presentation at the Global Plastics Environmental Conference.

Ocampo should know. Midland, Mich.,-based Dow is in the middle of an aggressive project to meet sustainability goals — ranging from reducing energy usage to completing product safety assessments — by 2015.

Packaging plays a part in those goals, particularly in the company’s plan to address the global food crisis and reduce food waste.

Today, 30 percent of the world’s grown food is lost to spoilage, and as the population increases, so does the importance of food security, Ocampo said, in an interview at GPEC 2013, held in New Orleans.

“Part of our sustainability goals include helping solve global challenges, such as the ones related to food, energy and water,” she said.  “Our knowledge in package design, especially in food packaging solutions, provides us an opportunity to really reduce food waste.”

The company is continuously developing materials that can help solve the food waste problem, she said, but finding a solution goes beyond just developing a new resin.

“We see packaging not just as a material but as part of a total food delivery system,” she said.

That’s where the idea of true sustainability comes in. People don’t go to stores to buy a package; they go to buy a product. A package might use less material or be recyclable, but that doesn’t matter if the food spoils before someone can eat it.

“The more we can do to make sure that product is delivered to the customer, the more sustainable is the solution we’re providing, because we don’t want any more food waste,” she said.

Dow has had success with packages that are lighter and require less material but also extend shelf life, allowing them to reduce both transportation costs and food waste, she said.

But large public issues like food security can’t be solved by one company alone; it requires innovation and collaboration.

That’s why the company partners with associations and other industry players, she said. “It’s important to open this dialogue, this discussion, to really drive science-based solutions…. To collaborate on a transparent basis, to make sure we’re not duplicating efforts and we’re really working together.”

One of those collaborations is with the Nature Conservancy. The worldwide environmental organization, based in Arlington, Va., with a mission to “conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends,” might seem like a strange match for a chemicals giant, but it works.

“It’s a unique breakthrough collaboration. We’re very proud of that,” Ocampo said.

Dow and the Nature Conservancy embarked on a five year partnership in 2011, with a mission of trying to “measure the value of nature,” and find ways to include that value into business decision making, she said.

The $10 million partnership has so far included two pilot sites — one at a Dow site in Freeport, Texas, and one in Santa Vitória, Brazil, at the site of Santa Vitoria Acucar eAlcool Ltda, a joint venture company formed by Dow and Mitsu & Co. Ltd. According to the Nature Conservancy, the pilot sites function as living laboratories: sites where they can validate and test methods and models.

The Texas site was chosen because it’s located where the Gulf of Mexico, the lower Brazos River and the Columbia Bottomlands  all meet, making it a junction of freshwater, marsh and forest ecosystems, according to the conservancy.

In Texas, the collaboration is focused on putting an economic value on the services nature provides; maintaining the flow of water in the river, despite the challenges of drought, population growth and changing coastlines; improving air quality through large-scale tree planting; and evaluating how marshes and coastlines protect the facility and community from storm surges and hurricanes.

The site in Brazil was chosen because it’s the site of a biopolymer production plant, and its location between two environmentally significant areas — the Atlantic Forest and the Cerrado — facing threats of development and deforestation partly caused by agriculture production, according to the conservancy.

There, the collaboration is focusing on improving decision making around how agricultural lands are expanded; ensuring access to fresh, clean water through forest protection and restoration; and incorporating the value of nature and the benefits it provides into decision making.

Ocampo charged the audience to take a “total package” approach to sustainability, and maybe take a page out Dow’s handbook.

“Knowledge is power. And collaboration is very powerful also. I encourage you to use it,” she said.