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All plastic packaging goes into the recycling bin, regardless of the material. What can be recycled is, and what’s left over is converted to energy, unlocking the inherent power in the fossil-fuel-based materials instead of condemning them to landfill after a single use. That’s the end-of-life vision for plastics packaging being proposed by Dow Chemical.

Tony Deligio

December 1, 2009

9 Min Read
New packaging values that value packaging

All plastic packaging goes into the recycling bin, regardless of the material. What can be recycled is, and what’s left over is converted to energy, unlocking the inherent power in the fossil-fuel-based materials instead of condemning them to landfill after a single use. That’s the end-of-life vision for plastics packaging being proposed by Dow Chemical.

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Glenn Wright, commercial VP, North American Basic Plastics, Dow Chemical Co., is responsible for all sales and marketing activities relating to the $6 billion Basic Plastics portfolio, which has 2500 employees and serves 500 customers throughout North America. He has almost 23 years of experience in the plastics industry with Dow and Union Carbide Corp. (UCC), serving in a variety of management, marketing, and sales roles. Wright joined Dow in 2001 via its merger transaction with UCC, and served as marketing manager for the Rigid Packaging market segment. Wright earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Texas A&M University. In 2005, he graduated from the executive management program at INSEAD in Paris.

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Jeff Wooster, senior value chain manager at Dow Chemical, serves as the company’s lead representative on Wal-Mart’s Packaging Sustainable Value Network, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, the American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Div. Packaging Team, and the Flexible Packaging Assn.’s Sustainability Task Force.

MPW: Your company has challenged the packaging industry towards a goal of no plastic packaging being landfilled. Can you talk about the impetus for that?
Wright: The point was to change the mindset that packaging and plastics are not waste; they’re waste reducers. There are still perceptions out there that, in many ways, are 180° off.

There are end-of-life options to packaging going into a landfill. It’s the leading waste-reducing technology we have. Look at the solid waste dimension and the contents the packaging protects. Meat packaging, for example, can sustain meat for 60, 70, 90 days without spoilage, where unpackaged meat spoils in seven days. So when you talk about the waste of the resources that go into meat without a good package, it dwarfs the resources that are in the packages themselves.

When you look at solid-waste reduction from use of shrink wrap and stretch wrap around goods in transportation, and the amount of damage prevented and loss of resources consumed in the contents, the savings far outweigh the resources consumed in the package itself.

When you look at actual resource reduction, there are clear benefits in the use of plastics over metal or glass. If you want to package 1000 lb of corn, for example, you can use either 155 lb of metal cans or 13 lb of plastic packaging. You’ve got tremendous savings in resource and energy use by using plastic.

This applies to fossil fuel usage as well, especially if you consider the debate about the environmental impact of paper over plastic. Plastic bags can be shipped very efficiently. It takes seven trucks to deliver the same amount of paper bags as one truck of plastic bags. The increased fuel burned to deliver the same number of paper bags over plastic settles the fossil-fuel consumption argument.

Having said that, there are some challenges around end-of-life options. This is really where the industry, certainly here in North America, needs to continue to build coalitions and have dialogue to develop better options. It shouldn’t go into landfills.
When you look at Western Europe and countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, you see their diversion away from landfills is 90%-plus. So what do they do? They recycle for reuse. But no matter where in the world you recycle for reuse, you still max out at 20%-30%, which leaves 70%-80% that needs to be recycled into something else. This is why we strongly promote the concept of recycle to energy.

It’s sometimes called waste to energy, but again, packaging is not waste; it’s of value and it can be recycled to energy. The reason recycle to energy makes sense can be appreciated in relation to coal. Linear-low-density polyethylene has twice the energy of coal, and yet we bury plastic and we mine coal for energy. We’re burying something that’s twice the BTU value of what we mine.

Recycle to energy is prevalent where you cannot recycle to reuse, such as in food packaging where you have seven-layer, very complex structures for cheese and meat packaging. They can preserve those products for long periods of time and reduce waste due to the complexity of the structure, but they pose a challenge to recycle to reuse because the packages are made up of a number of different resins.

MPW: With any recycling effort in the U.S., there always seems to be a question of who’s going to lead, whether it’s at an OEM level, brand owner or retail level, supplier level, or government. Who’s going to take the initiative here?
Wooster: It requires collaboration, but also someone to step up to the forefront and say they have a vision for how this will work and are willing to work with the whole value chain to create a system that’s acceptable for everybody. We need a system that is workable for the people collecting and sorting the product, as well as people who buy the product. If you don’t have product available, brand owners won’t be able to specify use of recycled content in their packaging for those applications where they can use it. But if there’s no market for it, then the sorter doesn’t want to take it out of the stream or collect it. So we think that by enabling recycle to energy as one use for the material collected, you can facilitate collection of a larger amount of material, thereby allowing for increased supply into the marketplace.

MPW: Do you know how much plastic is directed toward recycle-to-energy streams in the U.S. today?
Wooster: There’s no specific collection of plastic waste for energy. However, there is a considerable amount of waste to energy that’s done in the U.S., particularly in the Northeast, where land space is limited.

Wright: Believe it or not, there are almost 100 waste-to-energy facilities in the U.S. You find them if landfill is too expensive or doesn’t exist. What we’re trying to do, first and foremost, is outline a sustainable vision. We’re trying to make people understand that packaging is a key waste reducer in society, and promoting packaging technology is the best thing that we can do to reduce waste. You’re going to have different people touch along different parts of the supply chain. You can have packaging design technology that also facilitates better end-of-life options.

MPW: What role, if any, can federal, state, or local governments play? Have you interacted with them at all?
Wooster: We’ve had some engagement with local authorities, but one difficulty with the recycling system as it exists today is that every town does it differently. So, if you live in a city like Houston, with 2 million people, the large critical mass makes it easy for the city to implement a system. If there are 10 towns of 100,000 people in a cluster, and each town has a slightly different system, then it’s more complicated.

We think we can remove some of the complexity by moving to a system where every package goes into the recycle bin. The material recovery facility that gets that product from the hauler can then sort it and use it for the most valuable purposes for their particular situation. If they have a plant that wants to collect recycled polypropylene from dairy containers and yogurt containers, for example, then they’ll have a market for that product. If they don’t have a market in their particular area, they can send it to an energy recovery facility.

It allows for some flexibility in the system within a common framework and with different groups. In some cases, it’s the city that collects the recyclables. Sometimes it’s a private company that collects the recyclables with some guidance from the city. In other cases, the city tells them what to collect. So collaboration is needed between private enterprise and the government. For the most part, it’s not the government operating the whole system. They only operate the pickup in most cities, so there’s a lot of private-enterprise involvement, some interaction between government and private enterprise.

MPW: What else is Dow doing to address the issue?
Wright: Most of our sustainable packaging efforts are focused on packaging technology that preserves contents. Together with the solid waste reduction and reduced resource and fossil-fuel use, these offer the biggest benefits. End-of-life options are top on everybody’s mind, so we are going to address that. We have a sound vision of what it should be.

Wooster: We need to get people to understand that packaging is part of the system, it’s not something in and of itself. You wouldn’t have packaging if you didn’t have a product. So when you look at the total life cycle of the product, it becomes much easier to understand how packaging can protect the investment in the product, which is the much bigger investment. It also becomes possible then to look at how you need to treat end-of-life as part of that total life cycle for the product and package, together. It’s really about taking that life-cycle view and making sure that you optimize entire life-cycle performance, instead of only one element of it.

Wright: A great example is bread packaging. The energy and the resources that are put into the loaf of bread far outweigh the plastic package that’s put around the bread. Much like the meat, it’s keeping that bread fresh so you don’t have to drive to the grocery store every other day. The gas you save dwarfs the fossil fuel that’s used in that one plastic wrapper. It dwarfs the energy required to make that plastic wrapper. It dwarfs the amount of energy that’s used to bake that loaf of bread.

When you look at life cycle, packaging is not packaging unto itself; it’s part of the system. It’s part of the product that protects itself. What prompted us was the need for sustainability, so we said, “We’ve got to come out here with a vision and come to an understanding with all parties of what we think a true sustainable product and value chain is.” —Tony Deligio

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