Jeff Wooster is Dow Chemical Co.'s senior value-chain manager for its North American plastics business. He holds 42 U.S. and foreign patents and has published more than 35 technical papers. He recently discussed Dow's packaging sustainability efforts with Plastics News reporter Dan Hockensmith at Pack Expo in Chicago.
Wooster: There are a number of sustainability-related programs under way that we're excited about at Dow. We're working to increase energy recovery. Does plastics contain a lot of embedded energy that we can recover? Sure. Our task is making sure that we have the options that we need to both capture the value in our materials and to do what's right to protect the environment, and to make sure consumers get what they need to get out of the materials.
Q: What is the most challenging aspect of explaining Dow's sustainability goals to its [plastics industry] customers?
Wooster: When we are dealing with our engineers and those of the largest consumer-goods companies, it's relatively easy to educate them and help them understand both the benefits of using plastics and also the value of the embedded energy, and the value of recovering what's in the product. They can understand that, once we educate them, but it's not intuitively obvious.
The biggest challenge that we have with our customers and with the value chain is the same challenge that we have with general consumers, and that is that it's not intuitively obvious that plastics are good materials and that they're actually protective of the environment. Helping people understand [that] how [plastics] save more resources than they consume, how plastics protect goods from damage, how plastics protect food during distribution, how a little bit of plastics packaging can save a lot of some other material helping them understand those things, and what they can do with the materials at the end of its life [are challenging].
If you can't take something like a recycled plastic bag and put it into a recycling bin today, because there's not an easy way to mechanically recycle it and make it into another bag, then what can you do with it? There are a lot of alternatives and we need to develop those solutions, so that people can put a plastic bag into a bin, and it can be sent somewhere where the value can be recovered whether that's chemical recovery, energy transformation or some other means.
Q: How do recent efforts to ban plastic bags in California and elsewhere affect what you're doing?
Wooster: It definitely influences what we're doing. I wouldn't say that it's the only factor. We're very concerned about the proposals to ban plastic bags for a couple of reasons.
One is that if we take those plastic bags away, it's really going to destroy the infrastructure that we have for recycling flexible packaging from stores. Currently, some of the big supermarket chains and large retailers have collection points at their stores. Those bags get picked up by a recycler who takes the bags, reprocesses them and makes them into either new bags or some other product like artificial lumber.
There's a growing infrastructure for the recycling of bags and films and flexible packaging things that are not easy to process at a materials recovery facility that processes bottles and other rigid [packaging].
The [MRFs] tend to have a hard time recovering the bags, but in a separate stream collected at retail it's fairly easy to handle them and there's good value and demand for the materials in the marketplace. But if we take plastic bags away, then the stores aren't going to have those collection bins anymore. And so, not only will you lose the plastic bags from the recycling stream, you'll also lose things like shrink film on cases of bottled water, and dry cleaning bags.
Q: In Germany, Penny Markt [supermarkets] recently switched some beer brands back to aluminum cans from PET bottles, allegedly based on consumer preference and improved recycling rates [for cans]. What argument does Dow make to customers who may have similar consumer preferences for glass or metal packaging vs. plastic to advance plastic as the most viable alternative?
Wooster: For engineers and decision-makers who have scientific training, we can present evidence to help them understand it. Once we've done that, [we have to help them] relate it to something that's emotionally appealing and attractive to consumers. The consumer isn't always interested in seeing a full life-cycle assessment and knowing about the carbon footprint of their various packaging alternatives; they tend to go more on gut feeling. So, if we can help people understand, for example, that if they use plastic bottles instead of glass bottles, it reduces the fuel consumption for transportation by an amount that takes 1,000 trucks off the road or some other amount that happens to be appropriate for the particular item then we help them understand the impact in terms of something that's meaningful.
Q: Sustainability was a byword at Pack Expo 2008 in Chicago; then the U.S. economy tanked and the concept at least the eco-friendly side seemed to get put on the back shelf in light of more pressing bottom-line matters for many companies. But with Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble and other big names in retail and consumer products continuously implementing new scorecards and other packaging-reduction metrics, what kind of environment does that create for you, moving forward, with so many Dow customers affected by the mandates?
Wooster: It's an environment of opportunity and the more people that we have committed to sustainability, the better it is for us. ... If a company requests something that helps them be more sustainable, that really benefits a company like Dow that is strong in science and technology, because we can help develop those differentiated solutions.
We can help them develop advanced materials that help them lightweight their laundry detergent bottle; we can develop high-performance materials that help the food last longer when it's put into the package. The drive to sustainability is something that benefits everybody in the chain, especially those companies that understand that sustainability involves the entire life cycle of the product.
When you take a company like P&G, and they announce their big initiatives, they're trying to make decisions that minimize the impact of their product over the entire life cycle. For example, when they put forward their desire to make laundry detergents that work in cold water, that's so consumers don't have to use as much energy to heat up the water to wash their clothes. That doesn't directly impact P&G, but they understand that it impacts the whole supply chain and life cycles of their products.
We need to avoid making decisions that have negative consequences somewhere else in the value chain, so we don't want to shift the burden of responsibility from one party to another party.
We don't want to inadvertently cause more harm than we cause good because we weren't thinking about the whole life cycle of a product. Those would be things that would be easy to do, if you weren't thinking about the whole life cycle when you try to make a change.
Q: Does it scare you when P&G says that it is committed, over time, to eliminating virgin plastics in packaging?
Wooster: I think they said that they are committed to eliminating packaging made from non-renewable resources. That provides an opportunity, for example, to use polyethylene made from sugar cane. It's possible to make most types of plastic from renewable resources, but it's not always economical and it's not always environmentally preferred to do that with the technology that we have today. But if we have large companies that are demanding it, and saying, This is what we want [Dow] to do, then we can invest in [research and development] to bring these products to the marketplace.
Q: As a what if of current technology, take modified-atmosphere packaging. How is Dow keeping up with the trend toward more MAP in food applications?
Wooster: That's definitely of interest, because having the right atmosphere is what makes the product last for the right amount of shelf life. If it's a product that you don't want to have exposed to oxygen, then you need to get oxygen out. That means the right barrier; it means the right sealant; it means the right product integrity; it means the right flex/crack resistance; it means the right toughness. So you need abuse-resistance layers materials like Attane [ultralow density polyethylene] and Dowlex [PE] and Elite [enhanced PE]. You need sealants like Dowlex and Affinity [polyolefin plastomers]. You need barrier properties with Saran [PVC]. You need all those functional attributes to the package to make it work, because you've got a small investment in the packaging, a large investment in the product.
Q: Any parting advice for packaging professionals on sustainability?
Wooster: Understand the fundamentals. Understand what your drivers are. If you come to me and say you want to make a change, the first thing I'll ask you is, What do you hope to achieve by making that change? Are you trying to save energy or reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, or are you trying to eliminate waste? That helps you make your best solution for what your particular challenge is. Rather than coming up with the solution first, define what your problem is first, then decide on the solution. In a space where people are so passionate about sustainability, it's important to remind people that they need to use a scientific process to pick solutions.