Chemical makers worldwide are turning to local environmental organizations to help them improve their operations and sustainability — and profits. Among others, Dow, ExxonMobil and Chemours have benefited from such partnerships.
Dow’s approach to environmental management is a strategy called Valuing Nature, one of seven 2025 sustainability goals designed to propel the company toward solving some of the most significant challenges society faces. The strategy emphasizes projects that are good for the company and better for the ecosystem. It aims to save $1 billion in net present value with such projects by 2025.
Thomas Polzin, program manager for nature and ecosystem services at Dow, Bristol, Pa., leads the Valuing Nature group, which has expertise in biomimicry, civil infrastructure, environmental technology, engineering and remediation. “We define ‘nature’ as four pillars: clean air, clean water, healthy soil and healthy ecosystems. We had to define the word to really focus our message and effort. We are really focused on the water pillar currently and Dow, like other large manufacturing operations, is a huge water user,” he notes (Figure 1).
Since 2011, Dow has been working to develop projects with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Arlington, Va. Today, the projects are in three different categories: engineering natural technologies, process improvement and surplus land management.
Dow’s Hot Springs, Ark.,, restoration work provides a good example of engineering natural technologies. The location, a former Union Carbide mining site, is prone to very heavy periods of rain that create temporary channels and creeks. This rain washes out old mine tailings, which makes the water acidic and rich in zinc.
“The tradition for this sort of problem is to build a wastewater treatment plant. But now we have a regime of limestone-lined creeks to manage the water flow. The limestone neutralizes the acidity from the tailings and the channels themselves wind which creates pools and oxygenates the water. The zinc is grounded by the vegetation that has grown in these wetlands. The quality of the water flowing out of the channels into the river downstream is now so good that fish are beginning to repopulate it, after many years away,” Polzin explains. As a result of the effect of this passive treatment strategy, there is an opportunity to repurpose the land and turn it into parkland for the local community. “We’ve learned a lot about wetlands on this project — not least that nature knows what it’s doing,” he notes.
Process improvement is a key part of the Valuing Nature strategy. Dow already has achieved some notable successes. For example, at its Tarragona facility in Spain, the company’s own reverse osmosis, fouling-resistant membrane and ion exchange resin technology purify city wastewater for steam and various process streams use. At the same time, the site has reduced by up to 49% the volume of wastewater generated by its cooling towers due to the higher quality of the reused water.
Managing surplus land is the third important piece of the company’s strategy. “The Dow riverside wetlands project, across the river from downtown Midland, Mich., is a project that was executed to provide key ecosystem services for the area. This is especially evident during flood events, where the riverside wetlands will ‘absorb’ floodwaters from the river, while Dow’s Michigan manufacturing operations — which are located in the area — and downtown Midland do not,” Polzin stresses.
Dow is considering other opportunities, too, including a large tract of land in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, Canada. The company may return that land to natural habitat and graze it with sheep, instead of landscaping and mowing. It recently has adopted such an approach at its Terneuzen site in the Netherlands.
The company very much believes in the “nature has no fence lines” approach, and that it always should look for opportunities beyond its own sites, says Polzin. At Freeport, Texas, Dow actively is talking with a customer on soil-related projects. “This customer has been very enthusiastic and they actually approached Dow first as they were also working with TNC. We are also working with them in the state of Sao Paolo in Brazil to coordinate efforts in the Latin American region. Here, we are also working with key suppliers and customers to see if we can drive further value,” he notes.
To further illustrate how Dow’s strategy works, his Valuing Nature group, together with a team from TNC, held a half-day workshop at Dow Fort Saskatchewan in June to identify value and mindset shifts needed to help meet the 2025 goal. This session identified a number of opportunities whose merits currently are being considered.
Progress In The Pacific
ExxonMobil Papua New Guinea (EMPNG) has produced more than 27 million metric tons of liquefied natural gas (LNG) since production began in 2014. The company operates PNG LNG JV, a $19-billion project that includes gas production and processing units, liquefaction and storage facilities, and 700 km of linking pipelines across the country.
Since the start of work in the country, EMPNG has worked closely with the Papua New Guinea (PNG) Conservation and Environment Protection Authority (CEPA). Together, they have developed an offset program to improve the sustainability of operations. This has five components: protected area planning; support for the national biodiversity strategy; building conservation capacity; enhancing existing protected areas; and establishing new protected areas.