Wise Women in Waste | Ep 17: Circular Economy and Waste in the Chemicals Industry with NexantECA

wise women in waste podcast series

In this episode on Wise Women in Waste, our hosts Claudia Amos and Debbie Hitchen are joined by Dawn Allan at Anthesis, and Mais Haddadin and Jane Smith at NexantECA, an energy and chemicals advisory company. The discussion focused on how to create a holistic approach to sustainability in the chemicals sector and the impact regulation has had on creating sustainable change.

debbie hitchen

Debbie Hitchen

claudia amos

Claudia Amos

dawn allan

Dawn Allan

Inside this podcast

  • An introduction to the chemicals sector and how it can be misunderstood.
  • How the European Green Deal is impacting change in the sector.
  • How SMEs need to collaborate with large corporates to implement new ideas.
  • Career pathways to sustainable chemistry and advice for emerging leaders.
  • The experiences of women in leadership roles within the chemicals sector.
activating sustainability
Wise Women in Waste | Ep 17: Circular Economy and Waste in the Chemicals Industry with NexantECA


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Debbie: Hello and welcome to the Wise Women in Waste podcast series with me, Debbie Hitchen, Director of Sustainable Production and Consumption at Anthesis, and Claudia Amos, Technical Director for Waste and Circularity.

If you’ve joined us in our previous episodes, you’ll know that we are hosting a short series of podcasts, which use informal conversation to explore the trends and opportunities in our sector through the lens of women. We’re inviting, inspiring women in the waste and circularity industry to discuss our passion for the work that we do and provide some industry insights and knowledge along the way.

Today we’re super excited to be joined by Dawn Allen, who leads our Anthesis UK Sustainable Chemistry Service area and the team, and our guest, Jane Smith and Mais Haddadin in from NexantECA, which is an advisor to the energy refining and chemical industries. They will be sharing insights about what we mean when we talk about a holistic approach to sustainability in the chemical sector and the impact of regulation and other drivers for change.

So welcome to you all. It’s great to have you with us. Before we get into all of the detail around your expertise, perhaps we could start by just hearing a little introduction from you each. Tell us a little bit about yourselves, how you got into this industry, and the types of work that you are doing at the moment. So perhaps we could start with you, Dawn. Could you introduce yourself?

Dawn: So, I’ve worked in the chemical sector for over 20 years. I finished a degree in colour and polymer science and chose that because it was something that was an applied chemistry. So, I can see the changes that I make in my research in the real world., which makes it really interesting to me, and it’s something that I’ve continued to follow throughout my career.

I did around about 15 years in research, mostly industrial coatings, and followed that up by switching into sustainability and regulatory affairs. This is a really vibrant sector. It keeps me interested and it continues to change on a daily basis, and I love it. In terms of the work, I do at the moment, I do a lot on the regulatory aspects of the chemical industry. So, I help companies in making sure that their chemical compliance is up to date, and that they are considering the future of chemical regulations and how that will affect what they do and what they should be changing now.

Debbie: Thank you. Great to have you with us. Jane, can you introduce yourself please?

Jane: Yes, of course, thanks Debbie. Like Dawn, I’ve been in the chemicals and related industries for just over 20 years now. I studied chemistry at university, but was a terrible lab chemist, so I started my career actually in a chemical’s distribution company, which was really interesting, just seeing the variety, the different customers and the different applications that we saw the products going into. I then moved into consulting with NexantECA as it was known then, and I was there for around seven years working with large multinational chemical companies, helping them make decisions around what they should invest in, what markets they should go into.

I actually left NexantECA for a period and worked in the pharmaceutical industry looking at raw material, chemical, raw material supply and the issues around that and, and helping them secure the best supply and the best prices and helping there. And also spent some years in m&a advisory, but again, in the chemicals industry, so helping in deciding which companies to invest in and looking at the decisions they make there. I was very pleased to re-join NexantECA just over a year ago. And so being there now just over 12 months and really seeing a huge difference in how the industry has shifted since then and become increasingly focused and interested in sustainability aspects and quite inspired by my colleague Maize who leads that area. So, thank you very much for having us here.

Debbie: It’s great to have you, and Mais that was a lovely segue into your introduction.

Mais: Thank you. And it’s a pleasure to be here with wonderful, remarkable women. Basically, I was influenced by the start of my career, so I started my career as a student working in international development.

Although I was studying chemical engineering, I was kind of looking beyond the industry and looking at small and medium enterprises to boost economic growth at that stage. And that influenced my career going forward by becoming a more purpose led professional, I would say.

So, I started my career in specialty chemicals and functional chemicals. So, I was working in the paints and coating similar to Dawn. And then that led me to working a bit around innovation, and that led to innovation to drive economic growth. I focused specifically on high growing enterprises in our industry, and that also introduced me to working with public, private sectors.

Then that moved me to utilising all of that and working with the third sector and NGOs around economic empowerment of refugees, women, youth, creating jobs, then impact investment. But that stage I felt I was too far from the industry. So hence I came back into the industry and joined NexantECA, and this is when I started applying all these skills that I carried throughout these years onto helping our industry transition into more climate neutral economy and moving from the ideology to the “how’s”. So that’s where I am at the moment.

Debbie: I love these introductions. Thank you all for sharing that stuff with us. I think one of the topics that’s come up over and over again when we talk to women on these podcasts is how variant the different pathways into our sector are. And Mais, you’ve touched on something there I think is really interesting. You moved one way into sort of sustainability and then felt the need to bring that back to your technical expertise, but bringing all that experience that you’ve got, back into that forum and helping, as Jane says, move your business and your industry into a new area of sustainability; bringing that strength with you.

I never ceased to be amazed at the inspirational experience that these wonderful women that we interview bring to the session. And it’s really important because when we’re talking to people who are looking to pivot their careers or to move their careers into some of these areas, firstly, we’re shining a spotlight on sometimes the unexpected. I mean, I don’t suppose too many of our listeners would have thought necessarily that there would be a strong link between the chemicals industry and Wise Women in Waste, but also the, how do you get there? How do you build your career in these areas and, and how do you take that pathway through the various different parts of sustainability and technical areas of expertise.

But one of the things that we have sometimes touched on in these discussions is what inspires women to join this sector. And particularly when I hear you, you are all very empowered. You’ve all had a very passionate commitment to the career that you’ve had, but I don’t see that many women in the chemicals industry. And maybe that’s just my experience and my networks, but I’m interested to hear from you about women in the sector and people who’ve inspired you or roles in leadership has inspired you along the way.

Dawn: When I started out in the laboratories, especially in industrial coatings, as you can imagine, it was quite a masculine environment. The vast majority of the management and of the research chemists were male. But the women who stuck it we’re strong women and they are now driving. So, you’re seeing a lot more women in management. You’re seeing a lot more women making changes to those environments in the laboratories and actually inspiring others. In terms of regulatory and sustainability, I would say actually there’s a lot more women in my experience in regulations in chemical companies than there are men. Again, historically they didn’t always take up the management roles, but these days,

Claudia: I agree. I think in my network there’s also loads of women in big chemical companies who got leadership management roles also in sustainability, but also the wider breadths of experience has really been recognized and I think that’s sometimes really nice that people who might not have very linear straight career paths are actually now getting rewarded, because it’s getting more and more recognized by management that that’s a really good skill set to bring all of these different parts of chemical company or other organizations together. So, I don’t know if that’s the same experience for you, Mais and Jane.

Jane: You’ve definitely seen a shift in the last 20 years. I think like everyone here, like Dawn and Mais, starting in the chemicals industry; well sort of adjacent industries. I remember going to lots of events and being the only woman there. Comments made as well; “She’s great, but you know, she’s going to leave soon, because that’s what women do”, but I’m still here, still stuck it out.

And I think because I was in consulting, I left to go and work in industry; definitely when I was more in the operational side of things there were more women in management roles. What’s been great actually is now I’ve come back into consulting, and I’ve seen in the client side and actually also where myself and Mais’s work, and I think some of the other connections that we have, it’s taken some time.

If I think about my undergraduate degree, it was actually quite a fair split along gender lines, but I think it just takes some time for that to filter through and for those women to move up. But certainly, really inspired by some people in my network and colleagues.

Dawn: I would say just from something that Mais said earlier on in your introduction is that for a lot of women, it’s important to be able to stay technical. I’m finding that when I talk to them about why they made the career choices they did, often they don’t want to go into a management role that doesn’t allow them to continue to think and use that breadth of experience and that knowledge that they have. So doing something in sustainability, regulatory, it keeps changing, so you have to keep learning and it allows you to stay technical and develop as a manager as well.

Maze: Following on from what you said, So I studied chemical engineering in the Middle East and in the Middle East, usually universities and engineering are loaded with women, but then when you go to the workplace, sadly only 20% of these women work. And I think there are many challenges around working in the field, in the factory. So, when I worked for years in the Middle East, in that sector across different countries, you could see it’s dominated by men because of the harsh environment and the difficulty of transport, of getting there, et cetera.

But that is changing, definitely. And I feel throughout my career I’ve had very strong inspirational women and men leaders, actually that have been my angels throughout my career where you feel you need that kind of encouragement, that kind of support going forward. And I’ve shared with Debbie a bit before, I also grew up in a home where my mom was a colonel in the Army, so I was used to getting up in the morning and seeing her put on her army outfit in front of the mirror, et cetera. And that just also gave me this a little bit of, “I want to be something like that in the future”. I didn’t know what and how. And I think the chemicals industry in general, is a good space to actually grow and deliver impact, utilizing our technical knowledge and other skill sets as women and our passion and the amount we care; you can see, and we have the space to deliver it.

Claudia: Maybe we can go one step back and go a bit more into what do we mean when we talk about the chemical sector? What is it in your head that makes a chemical sector or defines it? Because it seemed to have so many different facets. We have already heard coatings, we have heard pharmaceuticals, we have heard demo, chemical, petrochemical.

So maybe Jane, you can give us a first insight. What in your head is chemical sector?

Jane: This is why I really love the sector and industry because it’s everything. I studied chemistry, I wasn’t a natural lab chemist, but you see how we are all in chemicals. But from a sort of sector/ business/ industrial point of view, you’re right, it’s very wide reaching, and I think what’s not necessarily understood, perhaps from say consumers or just people every day is just how integrated and important it is in our lives.

So, you mentioned pharmaceuticals because the raw materials required to make those pharmaceuticals are supplied by the chemical sector. The computers that we’re using, there’s plastics in there, but there’s also batteries that the chemicals use to make those batteries. It’s just, it’s everything and it enables our everyday lives in ways that we take for granted.

It gets probably a bad reputation. People probably aren’t familiar with the names of some of the major chemical players unless perhaps, unfortunately in news articles or when significant things happen. So, my personal focus is probably more towards like where Mais started on the specialty chemical side of things. So, things that actually enable the functionality of products. But of course, it goes all the way back to basic chemicals; things coming out of oil, coming out of coal. But as we’re talking today about the holistic approach, we’re seeing more and more about chemicals that come from bio based as well.

So, you can see when I talk about this, you go to parties, you talk to friends, you talk to family, and they probably think of chemicals in terms of nasty chemicals and cleaning products or things around spills. But no, it’s really brought positive impact to our lives; drugs, medicines, products, machinery, it’s in everything.

Debbie: And this is a sector which is relatively heavily regulated, isn’t it? So, Dawn, I think you mentioned a little bit about regulation in your introduction. Can you tell us a little bit more about the sort of key pieces of legislation and what do they mean for the businesses and the supply chains that Jane just outlined?

Dawn: So, the regulations that chemical companies are required to comply with will differ depending on what those regulations are going to be used for, but also depending on where they’re going to be selling or where they’re going to be importing or managed. So, if we look on a simple basis at just one aspect of that, when you are operating within a country, there are a lot of countries around the world which require you to list your chemical on an inventory, and that requires you to have hazard data and use data and to be able to assess that those materials are safe for use by the people in industry using them, but also by the consumers who will take those into products.

So chemical regulations are there and exist. I think one of the misconceptions about the chemical industry is that we don’t have to do anything to prove safety or that we don’t do enough. There are billions of pounds invested every year on the regulatory and safety aspects of the chemical industry.

In Europe, to give an example, we have the European REACH regulations. So that is an inventory, and it requires chemical companies to provide safety information, which is publicly available to anybody who wants to read it. One aspect of this is also that whenever you encounter a chemical, you are provided with safety information, if it is likely to cause you harm or to cause the environment harm.

So, those labels that you see on your bottles at home, there’s a reason they’re there. There’s a reason they’re presented like that, and they really should be read. In my experience, the people around me, I’m not sure everybody does that.

We talked about what the chemical sector is, and I just wanted to add to that in terms of the regulatory field, that the chemical sector and the regulatory fields are two of the main things that are driving change in our environment and in the materials that you see around you. So if you hear a news article about changes to products and we have this new, much more biodegradable material or advertising slogans that tell you that this is safer for the environment, or this one is kind of to your skin, those are all driven by the chemical industry and by the changes that the researchers do. But they’re also often driven by the regulations and the changes that are taking place.

Claudia: That’s really good. And building on that picture that Dawn just sent out, why is it imperative for the sector to act now, especially in the EU where we probably have the strongest or maybe the most complex set of regulations?

Mais: Basically, I think coupled with what Dawn has said around the safety regulations, at the moment we’re seeing regulations on national, regional, and country levels that look at the environment and look at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Hence, the industry is heavily looking into that to produce more sustainable products. As Jane said, the chemicals industry is ingredients for virtually every sector out there, including food packaging, including the clothing we are wearing, et cetera. So, the industry needed to act quickly to meet those regulations. If you’ve heard of the EU Green Deal, for example. And hence to meet such inspiration, the industry needed to look at what can I change? What kind of different types of feed stocks or materials can I use to produce these chemicals? What can I do around the energy I use around my operation? Do we need to close down some certain assets or do we need to retrofit those assets to meet these new regulations?

NexantECA, have actually done a brief study around what is needed or how much is needed to get the industry to meet those new regulations. And it requires a lot of collaboration, not only between the stakeholders in the industry, but also with the wider ecosystem, such as the investors, such as classifications with the regulators. So, you need almost all the stakeholders to be aligned for the industry to be able to actually move towards more a carbon neutral future.

Claudia: So, Mais you mention there the chemical strategy for sustainability. I think it’s worthwhile just focusing on that for a short minute. So for those who don’t know, the CSS is part of the European Green Deal, so that’s part of this idea that we, as a region, and I’m British, but I still would like to consider myself part of that region, we have a number of goals that we want to hit to relating to reducing the use of chemicals. It’s linked to the circular economy and there are a few key themes in there that are really important to chemical regulation and to chemical companies going forward who want to continue to operate in Europe.

So, some of those themes include the idea of a toxic free environment, the avoidance of the non-essential use of hazardous chemicals. Now the definition of essential and non-essential is something that’s currently under debate and how you decide if a chemical really is important to society, to a particular product, and whether that product itself is important and essential to society is a really difficult question.

And we’re also seeing the concept of safe and sustainable by design being really adopted and being brought through. So this means that when you start to design a product, so if you’re looking at those research chemists developing that first material that might go into anything from cleaning products to paint, to food packaging, to the plates that you might use on a picnic, all of those materials, companies should be starting to design them from scratch to be safe and to be sustainable.


So, it has to start now, it takes a long time to do those things.

Claudia: And what do you think the key considerations are in this space as companies grow and have to meet all of these global regulatory and in-house obligations? Because I think it’s not just the regulations. I think there’s also real shift in the sector towards sustainability, have their own commitments and really what they want to achieve.

And I’ve seen the shift, that there’s a genuine will to do better, to tackle differently and really contribute to sustainability because the chemicals are everywhere as you describe.

Mais: Yeah, I would say one thing they always keep telling people about is that not all of the same product is the same. So if we say not all ethylene is the same or not all paint is the same because it is affected by how it’s made, the process or the technology that’s used to make it, the supply chain where we’re getting the raw materials for it and where it is made, because of the need of electricity and extra energy. And I think Claudia, to just wrap up what you started saying is I think we are now moving from just talking about these commitments to the real, ‘how’ and when we’re faced with the real ‘how’ we are seeing opportunities, but also the challenges to achieve that. And hence the collaboration within the industry is getting much stronger and there’s more representation by talking even to the outside industry to meet such commitments, and in order for us to deliver real impact.

Debbie: I think that’s a really interesting point because when we’ve talked about this before, Dawn and Jane, I think you’ve raised issues about the number of small and medium sized businesses that are actually in these global supply chains. When we’re talking now, it’s easy to see how that is the case because we’re talking about chemicals that are ingredients in almost every everyday product that we use as businesses and consumers.

But I suppose it, it comes back to your point, Mais, about the collaboration and how we get those medium size businesses to move in line with the regulatory frameworks and beyond that, beyond compliance into really good practice. And I’d just be really interested in quick thoughts on how we might influence sustainability across that whole value chain, even into those organizations perhaps that are not the global giants.

Jane: It’s not an easy answer, because if for a larger multinational, they have the resources that you need to document, you need to track. If we think about the supply chains and, the industry’s working together, then they are putting pressure on their suppliers and then on their suppliers around traceability. We talked about bio based, but then chemical companies, they want to then show they need to certify the percentage in their products of, well, how much is bio based? So, for larger companies, they have the resources, they can do that. But yes, it is onerous on smaller companies, and then we have to ensure that they’re not at risk of actually being left out. Because they don’t necessarily have the teams, the resources, the capability because there’s a monetary impact to it as well there. So, Mais, are there networks, associations that can help with that? But we we’re discussing the same issue yesterday with a client and they’re looking at blockchain solutions of how to do that. But for some smaller companies, can they implement those sorts of solutions?

Mais: Yeah, I think you’re spot on. It’s with such change and shift, the role of kind of research institutes and industry bodies come to play. There needs to be more support around that. And also, the understanding that there’s no silver bullet; there’s no one solution or one size solution that fits all. It has to be tailored, not only at a regional level, but even per company level, per asset level. Also, the COVID crisis has helped us understand the importance of more localized solutions and supply chains, and the small and medium enterprises are the backbone of these, and hence, I see more effort needs to be done around public buddies and industry buddies to support the smaller and medium enterprises because we cannot lose them going forward.

Dawn: In the EU, we have a duty in-law not to adversely affect SMEs by the implementation of regulations, but obviously the development and compliance takes time and money.

I would say for any SME out there, make sure you are aware of what’s going on in terms of regulatory changes. There is no point having the greatest idea for a product now, if in five years’ time it will have to be taken out of the market. Maze mentioned that looking to others is useful and collaboration is really key. There are a lot of the large players out there who will happily collaborate if you have a good implementable idea, something that they can pick up and run with. Don’t see them as the enemy because they’re large companies. See them as a route to getting your idea out there and making a change to the environment or to safety or whatever else. If it works, they will help.

Claudia: That is fantastic, and I love that the conversation starts to flow and goes into loads of different areas. Unfortunately, we are nearly to the end. So maybe if you could just very briefly just give us a bit of advice or the type of advice you would give to emerging leaders who are operating in this sector or trying to navigate key topics in this space. What is your advice? I think, Dawn, you gave a really good intro in terms of what to look at, out to the future. Are there other titbits, other key topics you think you really have to look at that?

Dawn: I think for me, the people are the drivers here. A lot of these changes are political. They’re about where the NGOs are headed, where the public perception is on chemistry. So, when we’re seeing changes in the chemical sector and in regulations, it’s because people want that change to happen. So, when you’re having a difficult time, when your company is facing problems, remember those people around you. Remember what originally started your idea and pushed that passion and work towards that. And think about the people behind those chemical companies, behind those regulators. We’re all human in the end, and we’re all trying to get to the same place

Mais: I would agree with you on that. I also believe in the human-centric approach to sustainability, to the holistic approach to sustainability. And my advice would be just get involved, be part of the solution. Don’t be afraid to kind of move forward and be part of the crowd. Just find your passion and align your work with that. That would guarantee all of us moving forward in the right direct.

Jane: I think maybe just to, to build on what Mais said about the right direction is that it’s okay to course correct. I think we’ve all got the same end goal in mind, and you can see it, but sometimes it’s not a straight line there and it’s okay to change your view. Because things are shifting all the time, and as Mais said earlier as well, there’s no one silver bullet, There’s never a perfect solution. It’s building lots of smaller solutions together. So, it’s okay to maybe move a little this way or a little that way, but I think everybody’s got that. And as you said, I completely agree with Mais, it’s about people and you can’t forget the social and human aspect.

Debbie: Thank you. I think that’s so relevant in so many aspects of sustainability. We’re all in a bit of a fast-moving environment that the regulation and the good practice is progressing so quickly that it’s very easy to feel confused, overwhelmed, and daunted by the scale of that change. And I love the very pragmatic approach that you guys have suggested here, and the very personal. It’s very easy to think, particularly perhaps with some of these, large chemical companies that we’re talking about, that they’re faceless conglomerates, but actually they’re not.

We’re all humans. We’re all trying to achieve the same thing in terms of our sustainability journey, vision and mission. So, really wonderful to have you. Our aim has always been to find people who inspire and come with unusual knowledge and different perspectives that they can share, and I feel that in this podcast, we’ve really nailed that mission.

So, thank you all very much for sharing that with us. Sadly, that does bring us to the end of our session. We hope that our listeners have found this useful. If you would like to know any further information, please feel free to get in touch. If there’s any question that we haven’t covered today that you would like to know more about, please reach out and ask us. We’re always interested to hear from our listeners on what you’d like to know more about. So, any comments or feedback that you’d like to provide, you can give to us via the Anthesis website or contact Claudia or myself on LinkedIn. Until then, thank you all very much for listening and thank you again to our amazing panel of inspiring women today.