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Environmentalists and Dow: Chemical Reduction

Between 1996 and early 1999, NRDC worked on a groundbreaking project with a truly unlikely partner: Dow Chemical. The project tested the idea of pollution prevention -- improving the manufacturing process to stop pollution before it's created -- at one of the largest chemical manufacturing plants in the United States. What was it like for an environmentalist to work with Dow Chemical? NRDC scientist Linda Greer, who headed the project for NRDC, tells all.


Q: Why on Earth would NRDC want to work with Dow, and vice versa?

A: It's like Willie Sutton said when they asked him why he robbed banks: that's where the money is. If you want to prevent pollution, you've got to go to the source -- that was NRDC's motivation.

As for Dow -- we'd worked on a project with Dow a few years ago where we identified a number of pollution prevention measures for them, which they then failed to implement. We made our displeasure over that public, and I think that was a motivating factor for them in going ahead with this project. I don't think they actually expected that this project would yield significant pollution savings, because they honestly thought they'd already done what was there to be done. But it was a win-win proposition for them. If the project hadn't produced all that well, they would still have gotten credit for trying, and they would have continued to argue that pollution prevention wasn't the answer. Since the project succeeded, they'll get credit for stepping up to the plate -- and they deserve it, because that's just what they did. They had no legal obligation to do this, and it really wasn't just about the public-relations value of this for them. Their local plant managers took this seriously and followed through.

The other very significant players here, of course, were the local activists. They played a role that you'd really have to sit at the table with us to appreciate. These are folks who have been fighting Dow tooth and nail for years over a range of issues, most notably dioxin emissions at the Midland plant. For them, this was personal, because their children drink the water that Dow pollutes. So they saw this as an opportunity both to educate the local plant managers about the daily impact of their operation, and as a chance to help prevent pollution. I think they were successful on both fronts.


Q: What was it like working with Dow Chemical?

A: Let's just say it was a window on a world! I learned a lot about the internal dynamics of Dow, and came to understand their thought processes more clearly. I'm sure their people would say the same about me, and about the local environmentalists for that matter. Like every enterprise of this magnitude, the process had its ups and downs -- there were plenty of moments when I wanted to jump across the table at someone. There were many mornings on my way to work that I had serious doubts about what I was doing. The trick was to stay focused on our common interest here and put blinders on to the many areas where we disagreed. By the time it was over, we'd all learned a good deal about everyone else's point of view, and that's bound to be constructive. And we all felt very good about what we had achieved at the plant.


Q: How long did the project take?

A: We spent about six months getting our act together -- agreeing on the overall approach, who would be part of the project, and so on. Once we'd agreed on the "shape of the table," the project ran for two years.


Q: Did the actual pollution reductions and cost savings meet your expectations?

A: They exceeded our expectations. On the pollution prevention side, we set a reduction goal of 35 percent, and, frankly, we thought that was ambitious. But we came in with a 43 percent reduction! To do that in only two years is just amazing, given that fighting for these same kinds of reductions through the regulatory process, which is full of loopholes and delays, can take years. The same was true on the money front. I'd hoped the project would break even. But Dow's already made back what it invested and will save $5 million a year from here on out. It's testimony to the kinds of opportunities that are there to be found, provided someone looks for them.


Q: How do you feel about helping to save Dow Chemical a bundle?

A: Well, let's just say that if you told me five years ago that I was going to help Dow increase its profitability by $5 million a year, I would have stood and waited for the punch line! But at this point my view is: whatever it takes. I'm certainly not going to stop working to improve the laws. And we'll keep on taking polluters to court, as we always have. But if another way to get companies to stop polluting is to save them money, so be it. With the hundreds of millions of pounds of pollution being released -- legally -- into the air and water every day, we obviously need to develop supplemental approaches to protect the environment.

Besides, the fact that this project saved Dow money will help us persuade other companies to do the same, and that's the objective.

By the way, just to be clear, NRDC got no money from Dow for this project. We raised money to cover our time and travel expenses, as well as time and expenses for the local groups, through grants from two charitable foundations and from the U.S. EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy. Dow paid for a technical consultant and a project facilitator, and covered all of the Dow staff time that went into the project.


Q: In light of its profitability, why isn't Dow racing to reproduce this project at its other plants?

A: This was the biggest eye-opener for me in the project. I went into this thinking that if we could find ways to reduce pollution and save money at the same time, it would be a "no-brainer"; we'd be home free. How naive! Examined from the view of a large corporation, the question's a lot more complex.

First, there's the problem that $5 million isn't an awful lot of money from Dow's perspective. They make daily investment decisions ten times bigger than that. So, there's the problem of getting senior management's sustained attention with these small sums. Second, saving that money required a certain investment -- just over $3 million. Evidently they have in mind other investments for that $3 million that they think will be more profitable. Finally, for yet-to-be-enlightened business people, this project solves a problem they don't think they have. From their perspective, they have a government permit to treat or release these chemicals from their factory, and they are meeting occupational health standards, so what's the problem? They're busy people, and so you can see why these projects would not be a priority.

Also, while I think plenty of folks at Dow do care about the environment, there's not much in the corporate culture that rewards that sort of concern. Managers don't even get bonuses or promotions for effective environmental work, for example. Until that changes, it will remain an uphill battle.


Q: This is such a technical project -- what did the activists and NRDC really contribute?

A: I think we brought different strengths to the process. NRDC brought technical expertise, experience with advocacy, and project management skills to the effort. We also brought in the two very talented engineers on the project, Bill Bilkovich, who worked as a consultant to Dow to find opportunities, and Steve Anderson, who worked with us and the activists to track and oversee progress. Although NRDC began the project to see if good business opportunities could reduce pollution, half-way through it became clear that advocacy for the environmental value of these projects was going to be at least as important as engineering details to get anything to really happen. Whereas Dow business people were looking primarily at dollars, we also wanted them to focus on pounds -- the amount of pollution they were creating. My technical training was directed at recognizing what opportunities were winners, and my 20 years of work as an advocate helped me convince them to take advantage of those opportunities. The local activists brought an urgency to the equation that we couldn't. They know the folks at Dow, in part because they've been so outspoken about pollution issues in the past, and in part because they shop in the same grocery stores, and send their kids to the same schools. They have over 20 years of history with environmental problems at the Midland plant. So, when they sat across the table and looked Dow in the eye, they already had a certain relationship. That was absolutely vital.


Q: Has Dow Chemical become "green"?

A: No, they haven't. We hope that the process will change the way the people at Midland think about their production processes, but we haven't made Dow into a green company. Mind you, one thing we didn't do in this project -- and it's a big thing -- was to take on the issue of what products Dow manufactures. Just as there's no way to make a safe cigarette, many of the things Dow produces will never be environment-friendly. That's not the problem we were aiming at, of course. We had a very specific purpose, and we accomplished it.


Q: If other companies follow this model, will environmental regulations eventually be unnecessary?

A: No way. In fact, I think the project suggests just the opposite, because it teaches us just how financially enticing environmental opportunities need to be in order to be naturally appealing to a business. There's much more work to be done here, of course, but in the end, I suspect we'll need additional ways to motivate industry to tap the opportunities that exist for them to radically reduce their reliance on toxic chemicals.


Q: What are the most important things that you learned from this project?

A: Two things stand out. First, because the pollution reductions and cost savings at Midland were so significant, we need to assume that other such ventures would yield significant savings as well. It raises hope for radical reductions in pollution from this nation's factories, if we can ever get pollution prevention to take root. That's very exciting.

Second, and less encouraging, the profitability bar is set higher than I thought it was; motivating companies with "business value" alone is not going to suffice. That is, I'd thought that industry would opt for cleaner production methods if doing so was a break-even proposition. But what I learned is that industry leaders have a lot of inviting things to do with their money and they don't think it makes business sense to invest dollars in pollution prevention when an investment in something else will give greater financial returns. Which means that to be effective, pollution prevention needs to be not just profitable, but more profitable than other potential investments. That's a real challenge.


Q: What are the next steps?

A: It's time to take this on the road. We're going to be working to identify other, similar opportunities. They may be with Dow, they may be elsewhere. And, eventually, we hope that corporate leaders will take notice and start implementing these sorts of projects on their own. It's certainly not our vision that some day NRDC will be running projects with every manufacturer in the United States! In the meantime, we've got to tell the Midland success story to anyone we can get to listen, because we think it suggests a new way to think about industrial pollution issues, one that's very promising.

See also the summary article about the project, and the full report, PREVENTING INDUSTRIAL POLLUTION AT ITS SOURCE: A Final Report of the Michigan Source Reduction Initiative.

last revised 7.17.99

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