Neil Hawkins is vice president of sustainability and environment, health and safety for Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical Co. He drives sustainability strategy across the company's businesses and geographic areas and is accountable for the implementation of Dow's 2015 sustainability goals project.
Plastics News reporter Dan Hockensmith interviewed Hawkins shortly after Dow announced a five-year, $10 million collaboration with the Nature Conservancy of Arlington, Va., that will advise Dow and provide technical assistance on reducing the company's ecological footprint.
Dow also is the corporate sponsor of the International Year of Chemistry, a yearlong celebration in 2011 of the achievements of chemistry that was proclaimed in 2008 by the United Nations.
Q: What exactly is Dow's role in the International Year of Chemistry?
Hawkins: We are the international partner with [the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] and we're working with [the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry] in Zurich.
It's really an honor to have chemistry featured by the U.N., because it allows us to show the power of chemistry to solve the world's biggest challenges: clean drinking water, affordable housing, renewable energy, feeding the world, and infrastructure.
Chemistry provides the underpinning of more than 95 percent of the products that people buy. It's a little-understood science.
We're really hoping to see an appreciation of chemistry growing out of this. We really want to generate enthusiasm for the study of chemistry. When you look at science around the world, in many Western countries, fewer people are going into science [as a career]. This is really a significant issue for us in [the U.S.], because this is where the solutions base will come from. In many other developing countries, this isn't an issue people know that science and engineering are the paths forward toward higher qualities of life and challenging careers. We really need to showcase here and in Europe and other places that chemistry is a very important science.
 is the 100th anniversary of the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry to Marie Curie, so we're also using this Year of Chemistry to celebrate the critical role of women in science and chemistry, and promote that women can have a great career in chemistry. This is an excellent time to have that in focus.
Q: Could you elaborate on how Dow is working with stakeholders in the plastics industry to address the challenges they face that are unique to chemistry and plastics?
Hawkins: In the fourth quarter of last year in Buenos Aires, Argentina, we sponsored, and are sponsoring, a multiparty dialogue about the challenge of solid waste, including plastic waste, in a society like Argentina. There are varying perceptions of plastic waste, some of which are true and some of which are not. We believe that the power of collaboration can [help] people to understand what the problems are and what the solutions are. So at Dow, as part of our Latin American sustainability program, we convened a large multi-stakeholder process to examine these issues.
Really, having people not litter is a key issue more key than trying to come up with biodegradable plastics. Having said that, I think that some of the key opportunities still resonate in the areas of improving recycling rates and increasing the value of keeping the plastics molecule in play, and then, at the end of life, making sure it is disposed of properly. In many cases, that may mean as a fuel for production of energy or electricity.
We've been thinking a lot about the life cycles of plastics, and taking these precious resources from natural gas and petroleum, currently, and making sure that once we make plastics out of them, this is sequestered carbon that is in a form that can be used and reused.
We continue to look at and pursue alternative feedstocks. We believe that there's a future in sugar cane, but also in algae It's in those alternative feedstocks that the sustainability life cycle is demonstrated to have advantages; there are some feedstocks where that may not be true. Especially in places like Brazil, where sugar cane would be a highly advantage feedstock, we continue to look at them.
You have to take a look at the whole integrated stream of resource opportunities and challenges; view it through the sustainability lens; keep the molecule in play as long as it can be; ultimately, at the end of life, retrieving fuel value; and making sure we get maximum use out of every single molecule that we start with. That is the ultimate in resource efficiency. We're looking across all the stakeholders in the industry, trying to make sure we understand and work together.
This [year] is a great opportunity [for plastics executives] to help shape the general public's mind, so that when [consumers] see a plastic bottle, they don't just see a piece of trash. They see the wonder of how it was made through chemistry.
Q: Dow recently announced its collaboration with the Nature Conservancy. Is that an example of the kind of work that Dow is planning with non-governmental organizations?
Hawkins: That is the most exciting partnership that we have developed. The Dow-Nature Conservancy program will help us focus on evaluating the value of ecosystems and biodiversity to our company, to the land that we hold and really to understand the [natural] systems that [Dow is] part of. I think we're going to find that as we get into this, we're going to come to understand ourselves in ways that we didn't understand before.
We've always been a conservation-minded company. [What is new about] this partnership is that it's about valuing the services that water provides to our plants and to our communities, the value of wetlands, the value of forests and biodiversity. Once we have worked through the models and methods, [we then] take those into our business decision-making.
Everything that we do in this project will be open-sourced, published and made available to other companies. We believe there will be competitive advantage for Dow because we're moving into this early. We plan to share what we learn because we believe that business has a critical role in protecting the planet and at the same time growing [business].
Finding ways for business to be part of protecting the planet through market mechanisms while still growing to me, that's the great challenge and opportunity that our industry faces.
Q: What are some of the most important lessons that Dow hopes the world learns from the International Year of Chemistry?
Hawkins: What I'm most optimistic about is that the world will learn about the power of chemistry to solve the world's big challenges. By doing that, we're going to create a momentum of people wanting to study chemistry going into careers in chemistry new businesses forming and a lot of venture capital clean-technology work.
Just looking at Dow as an example: This year we're launching our Powerhouse [plastic photovoltaic] solar shingle, which is an incredible venture for us. We're moving into advanced battery technology for hybrid vehicles. We're helping solve the world's water challenge through our membrane [filter] technologies. We're doing it with research that reduces the energy load of those [products]. Every time you see a renewable-energy windmill, that's Dow technology in the composite [materials].
When you start looking at these areas these are things that [the public] may not see, but if we explain the power of chemistry to create better public health outcomes, to create renewable energy, to create hybrid vehicles, create solar shingles you'll see the power of chemistry.