Three outstanding plastics professionals, members of the PLASTICS panel Integrating Sustainability into Daily Operations: Why It Matters and How It Works—part of the PLASTICS 2021 Spring Meeting—joined us for a pre-panel chat about their sustainability achievements:
Each speaker represents a unique perspective in the plastic supply chain and works for a company that is a leader in implementing sustainability throughout its operations and culture.
How did you personally get interested in the sustainability space?
Lin: I was asked to take a role leading sustainable plastics procurement at P&G and haven’t looked back since.
Alexander: Some people have a dramatic introduction into sustainability that may be life-changing for them. But for me, it was much more gradual. While I was at Indiana University, recycling was normal and expected. I joined the Student Environmental Action Coalition with a friend, at her request. We started celebrating Earth Day every April in Dunn Meadow. Many of those thoughts and ideologies just became fundamental for me. It wasn’t really until the early 2010s that sustainability became a huge part of my career, and my interest in plastics and sustainability took hold.
There are numerous definitions of sustainability, encompassing a broad range of objectives. What does sustainability mean to you?
Adams: Sustainability is a very broad term. I think about the 3 pillars of Sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line: People, Planet, Profit.
Alexander: This is a good question to ask your stakeholders, as well. I would suggest that companies look at completing some form of materiality assessment to determine their answers. Materiality assessments are simply tools that help you understand what matters to your key stakeholders, in order to prioritize topics of interest and help ensure your efforts are bringing value.
What has been your proudest achievement in improving sustainability?
Lin: I like to always be the first, driving recycled or other sustainable materials into applications that they’ve never been used in before. Most recently, I drove the introduction of recycled content into beverage closures for the first time and am working on circular materials for the healthcare space now.
Alexander: I had the opportunity to lead a group of 50-plus companies throughout the value chain with the sole purpose of understanding recycling challenges and helping conceptualize solutions that could be a fix and not create new problems. By getting everyone around the same table, we all stopped pointing fingers at the others to fix the problems and began to roll up our sleeves and work together. It was a great example of industry-led pre-competitive collaboration.
Adams: Being able to help create simple models to quantify potential benefits of using regrind materials vs. introducing new virgin resin into the process. This helps close the loop and avoid waste-to-landfill.
What unique focus do you have in your supply-chain sector that may differ from the rest of the industry?
Lin: Westfall is vertically integrated, and we take a technical approach to sustainability. We take into account the unique material properties of sustainable materials when we build the molds and leverage scientific molding principles to adjust for variations in the materials. We aren’t afraid of challenges and we are willing to partner with our customers to take on these challenges.
Alexander: With the huge focus on circular economy, material suppliers are in a unique position. Many of the materials that will be highly valued in molecular recycling may not even be collected for recycling today. We are making commitments and investing in a more mature recycling infrastructure. However, the clear alignment in our industry to create circular plastics is a great indicator that those investments will be worth it.
Adams: At Cumberland/ACS Group we are an auxiliary equipment supplier. For recycling specifically, we are focusing on aligning our equipment to support the industry demands for in-house, post-industrial, and post-consumer recycling.
What takeaways should attendees expect from the Sustainability Panel?
Adams: With the diversity and broad backgrounds and experiences of our panel, attendees can expect to have a lot of creative discussion around different issues and best practices that impact people, planet and profit.
Alexander: There is a role for everyone in every organization to drive sustainability. I’m hoping we’ll be able to share thoughts and ideas to help everyone better understand where their organization is from a sustainability performance standpoint and start identifying steps they can take to create improvement.