Driving Change: Dow's Vision for a Circular Economy in Plastics

Posted By: Michael Delee In the News,

Imagining a future where our landscapes and communities are free from the burden of discarded plastic requires a fundamental material ecosystem overhaul. The vision is clear: Materials should flow seamlessly within a closed-loop system, retaining their value and preventing leakage into nature. But how do we translate this vision into reality, especially considering that only a small fraction of plastic packaging worldwide is recycled?

Dow is a leader in the chemical and plastics industry, well-known for its innovative solutions and commitment to sustainability. Acknowledging the immense value of plastic across diverse applications, Dow is actively engaged in developing solutions that extend this value well beyond its initial use. At the forefront of this mission is Michael DeLee, the Global Business Product Stewardship Director at Dow, who has nearly two decades of experience in plastics and polymers.

Michael's role is pivotal in driving Dow's circularity initiatives and ensuring regulatory compliance and product safety across global markets. Leading a team of dedicated product stewards and safety experts, he orchestrates the implementation of stringent safety measures and environmental protocols, ensuring that Dow's products meet the highest standards of sustainability and safety.

Dow is a valuable and engaged Change Chemistry member. We talked to Michael about his team’s innovative work that is enabling a circular economy for plastic.

Change Chemistry: 
Can you tell us about Dow’s Recycled Stewardship program?

I'm really proud of it. For decades, Dow has prioritized safety, and that safety extends not only to operations and keeping people safe, but also to the products we sell. As we think about recycled plastics, particularly in mechanical recycling, we now must think about the composition and performance of the plastic through multiple life cycles versus the past single life cycle. We are working on the appropriate way to manage not only the chemicals present in the plastic but also those that contacted the plastic along its life (for example, bottles) and reduce and mitigate any associated hazards. In the waste space, we're taking plastic that could have been a jug to store chemicals, so we don't always know where it came from.

We put together the recycled stewardship program based on publicly available methods for non-targeted and targeted analysis to scan for the potential chemicals and contaminants in polyethylene-based post-consumer recyclate or PCR. In the virgin plastics space, we know the raw materials. It's very clear and consistent, with a recipe we've been using forever. In the recycling space, the waste is captured, to keep it out of the environment, and used again. In the mechanical recycling process, the waste is converted into plastic pellets through a series of
mechanical processes such as sorting, shredding, washing, drying, compounding, and pelletizing.


Now the entire value chain has to start to consider the lifecycle of that waste. Our approach is to think about the things that could be present such as additives and other chemicals from different plastics and polymers plus contaminants from non-plastic sources. To mitigate that, we focus on hazards, exposures, and chemical analyses, and then fold that information into a risk assessment based on where the PCR will be used by our customers. How are our customers intending to use this material? Is this going into secondary packaging stretch wrap film? Or are our customers intending to convert this material into packaging for a personal care product? This drives different end point risk evaluations. 


In the case of stretch wrap, our risk assessment would consider whether a person would be touching that wrap multiple times a day, and if so, whether a threshold of concern is reached, considering the things that might be in there. If not, then the PCR can be used in the targeted stretch wrap application. If risks are identified, then we start determining layers of protection from a product stewardship perspective, such as lowering the amount of allowable PCR incorporation for the application, etc. Our program may specify for this material, only 10-20% is allowable. Virgin material would make up the rest. 


We've done hundreds of global risk assessments with thousands of samples analyzed over the last few years, and we've learned so much about the makeup of these PCR materials.


Change Chemistry: What makes you particularly excited about this work?

Michael: One thing that I love is that a lot of the solutions in this value chain require simple, basic chemistry. For example, one of the easiest ways to separate PVC, polycarbonate, and all these other plastics is called a floating sink tank. It’s just water. Based on density, some plastics sink and some float, which allows sortation. Another example is a partnership with Mura Technologies in advanced recycling, using supercritical steam (water) to break the polymer chains into smaller molecules. The way I view some of the principles of green chemistry is that simplicity is sometimes better. We can find new ways to use existing chemistries.  Sometimes it's just about taking basic phenomena and using them in a different way.

Change Chemistry:
It sounds like human health and the environment are key considerations in your work. Are there others?


Michael: One of the things we have been trying to do is share best practices to elevate all  aspects of plastic circularity. Since we make the pellets, we have a program called Operation Clean Sweep that aims to keep pellets out of the environment. We're trying to bring what we know about plastic containment to recyclers to ensure they also have containment measures in place. 


We also prioritize social equity. We partner with waste pickers and companies, like Delterra in Latin America, and we've always made it a point that this transition has to be just. We have a program that enables us to trace the value chain back to the source. This is helping us verify that we're not creating circularity at the expense of the economies of the people and municipalities that are pulling the waste out of the environment. 


Change Chemistry: Does your team have opportunities to see the outcomes of their projects?


Michael: We definitely see the impact of our work. One of the things I've been focused on is bringing our toxicologists and product stewards together with the business and the R&D functions to visit recyclers and see how the trash is processed. It’s important to draw that line of sight to the impact of their work because it's a huge motivator for the teams, particularly ones that are running risk assessments all day. It's exciting. 

Change Chemistry: Tell us a bit about your background and why you’ve chosen a focus on plastics and sustainability.


Michael: I'm deeply driven by a sense of purpose. I’ll tell you a personal story about my wife. I work from home a lot, so she hears many of the things we're doing and a lot of our discussions around recycling. She recently sent me a picture of a number 2 recycling label on a product, and the number 2 label has “HDPE” at the bottom. She said to me, “After hearing you talk so much about recycling, every time I see this label, I don’t see ‘HDPE,’ I see ‘HOPE.’” 


People outside of the plastics value chain often don’t realize that there are a lot of people in the value chain who are very passionate about the environment. They care about people. They care about solving problems, and they’re trying to do some good. That’s a big reason why I care about this work.


Change Chemistry: What advice would you offer other companies working in transitional spaces? 


Michael: This work takes a lot of patience and a lot of persistence. It's a lot of sweat equity. It can be hard, because when you’re as passionate as my team is, you want to see faster progress. You have to remind yourself that this is a journey, and that each journey takes a lot of steps. The important part is to keep moving forward. 


Change Chemistry: How can the Change Chemistry community get more involved in creating circular economies, particularly in plastics?


Michael: I think the big thing is tapping into more infrastructure for waste. I'm going to share one of my ideas with you, and I hope someone makes it happen. So, for example, Amazon, UPS, or Walmart goes to your house and drops off packages. Why can't they also pick up your plastic waste and then drop it off at facilities somewhere? So curbside pickup would be fantastic. There’s a big need for more convenience in recycling. In the meantime, boosting in-store drop offs, and takeback programs would help. When people go to the store to buy new things, why can't they just bring in their batteries, or plastic waste?

I love the EPA Safer Choice program. It’s a great mechanism to drive safer chemistry and bring consumer awareness to stewardship that goes into consumer products. That type of approach in the plastic recycling space would be really helpful. 


I’ve seen a lot of consortiums, but the power of Change Chemistry is it's the only place where the full value chain is represented, all the way from the manufacturers to the converters to the retailers. Plus, there are non-industry representatives like the Environmental Working Group and startups. There are NGOs at the table. There are academics. It provides a multilateral and multi-perspective view on green chemistry, all driven with a common purpose of improvement, which to me is the game changer we need going forward to drive impact.


We are challenging ourselves to find solutions to plastic waste while preserving the benefits of plastics. And we are doing it as a team both internally and externally, bringing together experience and insight from all stakeholders. We’ve got to address these challenges together. We all bring something to the table.