As the director of sustainability for Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics, Julie Zaniewski wears several different hats.
She is responsible for developing new collection models, shaping policy programs, creating solutions for plastic waste and working toward closing the loop.
Zaniewski studied packaging engineering at Michigan State University and interned at Kraft Foods in the packaging engineering department.
"I was drawn to the role — and packaging more specifically — because of the everyday impact it has on the lives of people all over the country and around the world," she said. "Packaging gives people the conveniences and necessities that enable them to access foods, beauty products, medicines and more. Working to understand which materials are right for each of the applications needed for packaging really helped me understand the industry and how it plays a role in everything we do."
One of the biggest surprises about the industry, she said, is how the "big plastics players" collaborate to develop solutions.
"It's not often you see competitors working together in our industry," she said. "I am in contact with my counterparts at other manufacturers often, and we're constantly talking through the issues and what we can do to lead collectively in that space."
Zaniewski gave the example of the Closed Loop Fund, "where we are one of many companies coming together to tackle recycling roadblocks in communities such as the New York/New Jersey region."
Mentoring and leading women in the sustainability space has been one of her career highlights.
"It's an incredible feeling to see women in this industry grow and go on to do great things," Zaniewski said. "Many of them that I've worked with over the years are movers and shakers in the industry, and I'm very proud of them."
Q: What advice would you give to a person considering a career in the plastics industry?
Zaniewski: Something important to remember for those new to the plastics industry — and those just entering the workforce — is that you are the one who is responsible for your career. One of the best things you can do for yourself is to find an area of interest/expertise that feels the most purposeful to you. You may end up in some ill-fitting roles on the way to figuring out exactly what you want, but you should always advocate for yourself and be working towards a career that you feel inspired by.
Q: What is your personal "mold" that you are breaking?
Zaniewski: In addition to being a woman in plastics sustainability, I think the personal mold I'm breaking is being tied to an office or a certain location for work. I had worked remotely since long before the pandemic. I'm able to work virtually, which allows me the opportunity to be home with my family and create a work-life balance that works for us. The mold I'm breaking is that, as a mom and a professional, I can be successful at both and not compromise on either.
Q: What is the most unexpected thing you learned from the pandemic?
Zaniewski: Looking back now, I'm amazed that I didn't know this about myself before, but the pandemic has shined a light on just how much of an extrovert I am. Being able to get back to spending time in person with like-minded individuals has been rejuvenating and inspiring. Even meeting people outside of the plastics industry who are focused on sustainability has helped me to push forward my own work and think more creatively about the problems we face.