Skip to Content

‘The Most Environmentally Friendly Material Out There’: Dow CEO Has a Counter-Argument to the Plastic Backlash

When it comes to the global waste crisis, plastic itself isn't the culprit—it's the lack of infrastructure to recycle it, says the CEO of one of the world's largest plastics producers.

"I think there's a lack of infrastructure in general to deal with the amount of waste we produce today as a society, and that's what we're trying to tackle," said Jim Fitterling, chief executive of Michigan-based Dow Chemicals, which produces the petroleum-based chemicals that form the basis of plastics. "Plastics is at the tip of the spear, because this is what everyone sees or experiences."

Speaking at Fortune's Global Sustainability Forum in Yunnan, China, Fitterling countered the backlash against plastic, arguing it is the "most sustainable and environmentally friendly material that's out there," and adding that aluminum, steel, and glass all take significantly more energy to produce and recycle.

"I think what you're dealing with is the emotional response to the plastic waste issue," he said, adding that it was nonetheless an issue that needed to be tackled.

Wasteful systems are the bigger problem. Yet efforts to create a circular plastics economy, with less waste, have often been hamstrung by a lack of infrastructure for both collecting and processing recycled products, he said.

In the U.S., curbside recycling collection has been discontinued in many communities, and even when recycling is collected, there is frequently not enough demand for recycled plastics to make it financially worthwhile to process it.

"We have an economy where people's waste gets collected . . . and we think it's going to be recycled, but it's actually not," Fitterling said.

That's a problem even the most committed recycling nations, like Germany, have struggled to solve. The country has near-total collection rates for some packaging, but still struggles to recycle it.

Fitterling said Dow was working to develop "circular" systems, pushing to design materials that can be easily recycled, working with local communities to incentivize collection, and creating a market for recycled plastic.

That push has come alongside the company's increasing focus on sustainability, he said; he's now spending "easily 25%" of his time on the issue.

Fitterling's remarks at the forum came in marked contrast to a speech later in the day by Tony Fadell, the inventor of the iPod and founder of Nest, who argued that such an approach wasn't enough.

"Anyone that says that plastics are a waste management problem [is] lying," Faddell said.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—Why winemakers are hailing a G7 victory and tech companies are crying foul
One of Asia’s richest men is buying a British pub business right before Brexit
Huawei launches new A.I. chip as the company enters “battle mode” to survive
—How Hong Kong’s protests are roiling the world’s booming bubble tea market
—Listen to our audio briefing, Fortune 500 Daily
Catch up with Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily digest on the business of tech.