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“Make an impact.” With Penny Bauder & Jeff Wooster

During the current pandemic, I think it’s especially important to offer other people kind words of support and recognize the good work many folks are already doing on the sustainability front within their communities. I’d like them to know that there is no positive impact that is too small to be worth making. And there […]

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During the current pandemic, I think it’s especially important to offer other people kind words of support and recognize the good work many folks are already doing on the sustainability front within their communities. I’d like them to know that there is no positive impact that is too small to be worth making. And there is no progress without the occasional set-back, so keep working toward what you know is right. I would encourage each person to act with the knowledge that they can make an impact if they take responsibility for their own actions — and that goes for both social and environmental obligations.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Wooster.

Jeff Wooster is the Global Sustainability Director for Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics, based in Houston. He is on the Board of Directors for GreenBlue and serves on the steering team for the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Alliance.

Wooster has been recognized for his many efforts to advance sustainability practices including the American Chemistry Council Responsible Care 2015 Employee of the Year and an inaugural person of the year Trashie Award from the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. He lives in Houston, Texas with his husband Randy and their dog Hercules.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My personal and professional interest in sustainability was pretty much set at birth. I was born on a family-owned dairy farm in Northwest Iowa. My grandfather was the first farmer in the state of Iowa to use terraces to prevent soil erosion. My uncle was a chemical engineer and inventor. As a kid, I remember hearing about all the neat things they were working on. My career stems directly from this childhood environment — I knew from an early age that I wanted to be an inventor, too. I also knew I wanted to work in a capacity that combined research and development with sustainability. That led me to major in chemical engineering, and then, I chose to work at Dow because it allowed me to combine these passions.

While I’m a scientist by training (and have the patents to show for it!), I like to think that sustainability has been in my blood forever.

What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve?

Our ambition is to be the most innovative, customer-centric, inclusive and sustainable materials science company in the world. In fact, sustainability has been a cornerstone of Dow’s business since our founding.

More than 30 years ago, Dow created a voluntary board committee focused on environmental health and safety to ensure that sustainable principles were driven from the top of the company. A few years later, Dow was among the first to create an external sustainability advisory council — comprised of representatives from business, government, academia and NGOs — to advise and challenge the company on sustainability strategies and goals. Today, this is considered a best practice. And having personally engaged with our external advisory council, I can assure you that they do challenge us, and we do listen and change our direction based on their input. It’s invaluable.

We are at the forefront of an accelerated effort to both lead the materials science industry toward a carbon-neutral world to mitigate the impact of climate change, and to eliminate plastics as a source of waste and help transition the world to recover the value of plastic through the implementation of the circular economy. In 2014, I helped draft the white paper that led to inclusion of circular economy as a key element of our 2025 sustainability goals, and we’ve recently expanded on that commitment.

Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?

Dow’s “protect the climate” targets reflect our commitment to accelerate our work with our suppliers, customers and value chain partners to ensure Dow’s ecosystem is carbon neutral by 2050 — and to ensure that we are part of the global effort to address climate change.

We are working with all of our stakeholders to hold ourselves accountable every step of the way with two primary areas of focus — 1. ensuring the products we sell to customers continue to be more sustainable than any alternative, and 2. advancing the efficiency of our manufacturing operations.

We are also undertaking initiatives to improve sustainability across the lifecycle of our products. We focus on several key pillars including innovating new technologies to make and use recycled plastic, convening with global change makers, investing in building the circular economy and empowering communities and employees.

Of note, one pillar we’ve focused on during the pandemic has been empowering local communities by supporting waste pickers in the wake of COVID-19. As part of the informal sector that is responsible for much of the recycling that occurs around the world, waste pickers are critical when it comes to addressing sustainability on a local level. When the crisis arose, we knew that we had to help. Together with our partners, we came together to launch a global fund aimed at supporting the waste picker community. We encourage companies and their employees to contribute to the fund to help provide resources for waste pickers. Additionally, food rations and supplementary income will be provided in places where waste pickers are unable to go to work. The hope is that the fund will help to improve the lives and livelihoods of waste pickers across the globe.

Even pre-pandemic we had a robust and truly diverse set of partnerships across the globe, including in China, Brazil, Ghana, Nigeria, Indonesia, Kenya, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand — just to name a few! I am fortunate to have been able to visit many of these partners and see first-hand the difference they are making in local communities.

Dow is a founding member of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, whereby a $1.5 billion commitment was made from members (including brand owners, recyclers, waste management, plastics and petrochemical companies) to develop and scale solutions that manage plastic waste and promote post-use solutions of plastic. The Alliance and its members are committed to ending plastic waste in the environment and driving a more circular economy for plastics as part of the solution.

We are engaged in a public-private partnership with the World Economic Forum — the Global Plastic Action Partnership, which aims to tackle plastic pollution of rivers, deltas and the ocean. In Brazil, we have partnered with Boomera and Fundación AVINA for Recycling for Change to strengthen the business model for waste cooperatives in the country, which has led to increased revenues for the local cooperatives.

One of our signature achievements is our collaboration with the Ocean Conservancy and other partners for our #PullingOurWeight initiative. Over 18,200 Dow employees, customers, family members and friends have participated in 175 cleanups globally as part of #PullingOurWeight.

In July of this year, we kicked off Project ReflexNG in Nigeria with three partners — Omnik, RecylePoints and the Lagos Business School Sustainability Centre. The goal is to collect and recycle plastic waste in Lagos, Nigeria. This project is part of Dow’s global STOP THE WASTE sustainability target, which will enable the collection, reuse or recycling of one million metric tons of plastic globally by 2030.

There are many initiatives that Dow is undertaking to become the most sustainable materials science company in the world. There’s always work to be done, but I’m truly proud of our pioneering efforts on the sustainability front.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer for how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and environmentally conscious. But there are plenty of opportunities. One of the most straightforward ways to improve profitability while focusing on sustainability is to invest in technology to improve energy efficiency. This could entail insulating buildings to reduce heating and cooling costs, installing energy efficient lighting or reducing the frequency of driving at high speeds (to reduce fuel consumption). Saving energy reduces costs and reduces emissions — providing wins for both the bottom line and the environment.

As the world population grows, so does urbanization and the consumption of natural resources. This forces companies to address the problem and learn how to do more with less, while dealing with the rising costs of energy, equipment and materials.

Another avenue for businesses — especially those in the packaging industry — is to consider the materials they are using. For example, Dow has partnered with Kellogg’s Kashi Bear Naked, a leading granola foods brand, to drive more sustainable packaging. Bear Naked was looking to move toward a more sustainable future and become less reliant on single-use plastics while improving recycling rates. Bear Naked is now rolling out fully recyclable packaging for its best-selling granola and granola bites, working with Dow and other partners. The new film manufactured is possible thanks to Dow’s RecycleReady Technology — which is approved by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition® for the How2Recycle drop-off initiative. This shift in packaging is increasing recyclability of the brand’s products among consumers.

What works for a businesses’ bottom line can and should also lead to a more sustainable future for our planet. If we don’t protect the environment, we won’t have a business in the future, so we must act now.

The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.

It’s tough for both kids and parents in the current pandemic. However, it’s an opportunity for parents to both practice and teach more sustainable practices. Included below are several steps parents should consider taking to educate their kids:

  1. Reuse and recycle. Kids should understand proper labelling and when possible, when to reuse items for food or other storage. Sometimes kids teach their parents about recycling, so if you’re a parent, be open to listening to these messages and set a good example by letting your kids see you actively recycling.
  2. Visit recycling centers and dumps (while observing relevant safety protocols like wearing a mask and observing social distancing!). The machinery and different types of recycled items can be fascinating to watch. It also helps kids understand that just because our waste leaves our homes, does not mean it leaves the planet. There is no “away” when it comes to trash. It’s a very visual exercise to show kids how much trash is produced.
  3. Go local. Take your kids to your community’s farmers markets and talk with the farmers about their crops and what is available seasonally. Try to buy from local farms, and maybe even partake in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Eating locally also reduces carbon emissions from transportation.
  4. Volunteer for a (socially distant) waterway cleanup. If you don’t live near a beach, there are plenty of lake, river and other cleanups that can be fun! Even the walking trail around the mall parking lot is a good place for a cleanup. And you can do it as a family activity anytime the weather and your schedule cooperate.
  5. Highlight activists their own age. While Bill Nye is entertaining, kids may benefit from learning about environmental activists that look like them. Greta Thunberg is a well-known example. Others include Mari Copeny, AKA “Little Miss Flint,” who advocates for clean drinking water. The lesson here is that kids can make an impact and they should know that!

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

While there are many items I could cover, I believe there are five salient items that I wish someone had shared with me prior to my entering the profession:

  1. Just because you study one degree doesn’t mean there won’t be a way for you to combine all your passions as you carve out a future for yourself at a company. When I took classes at Iowa State, I don’t think I heard the word sustainability once — now look where I am today. But I did take a class call Environmental and Natural Resource Economics — which was probably my first formal education on the topic of sustainability.
  2. Chemical engineers can work in a variety of fields and functions. After graduating college, most of the companies I interviewed with were looking to place chemical engineers in manufacturing plants or oil fields. When I joined Dow in 1988, I spent five years in polyolefins product research. In this role, I developed new polyethylene resins and worked to understand fundamental materials science and polymer processing. I then transferred to the Plastics Technical Service & Development team, where I held technical responsibility for many of Dow’s key polyethylene customers and worked to develop new applications and markets for our products. It wasn’t until 2007 that I took on a full-time “official” sustainability role.
  3. You can grow with an industry. When I started, the plastics industry was relatively small and almost unimportant. Plastics packaging wasn’t prominent in grocery stores or known to provide the benefits we’re aware of today. Be flexible and willing to adopt and change and grow.
  4. Sustainability is more than just recycling, but individual efforts are still important! I still sift through waste bins at work to ensure that recyclable items are placed in the proper receptacles. It’s important — but so are capital investments by large organizations to ensure we are all working toward a circular economy.
  5. To be successful, you do not need to do it all by yourself. There is a world where collaboration across unlikely groups (e.g. businesses, government and NGOs) is encouraged, if not expected, to achieve success. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and don’t be afraid to seek out nontraditional partners in your quest to make an impact.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

It would be difficult for me to pinpoint a single person. My mother, father and uncle all certainly had an impact on my life and career. Karen Carter, Dow’s Chief Inclusion & Human Resources Officer, has been incredibly encouraging, especially during complex projects. She really pushed me to make a bigger impact and drive more change and kept encouraging me to keep at it when the obstacles seemed insurmountable. I’ve been inspired by many of my “industry friends” over the years, appreciating their leadership and willingness to rock the boat when it needed it most. People like April Crow, Rob Kaplan, Nina Goodrich, Gail Tavill and Joan Pierce have truly impacted me and made me strive to be better and do better.

You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

During the current pandemic, I think it’s especially important to offer other people kind words of support and recognize the good work many folks are already doing on the sustainability front within their communities. I’d like them to know that there is no positive impact that is too small to be worth making. And there is no progress without the occasional set-back, so keep working toward what you know is right. I would encourage each person to act with the knowledge that they can make an impact if they take responsibility for their own actions — and that goes for both social and environmental obligations.

If I could also inspire global citizens to come together, even during the pandemic, to recognize the power of partnership, strong leadership and teamwork to make our world a more sustainable planet, that would be ideal. We really are stronger together.

Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?

Taking accountability for your own good choices is paramount. Nobody can make the necessary choices for you. That goes for life in general as well as sustainability measures in both a personal and professional capacity. I was asked for a favorite quote many years ago by my then boss Fran Hammond and the quote I chose was “I am responsible for my own good time” which exemplifies the individual responsibility that I feel and try to share with others.

What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?

Twitter: @JeffWoosterRS

LinkedIn: Jeff Wooster

This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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