John McKernan became president of Calmar when it was still owned by Cie. de Saint-Gobain. In 2006, MeadWestvaco Corp. of Stamford, Conn., acquired the injection molder of nonaerosol dispensing and spraying systems for $710 million.
McKernan joined Calmar in 1996 as executive vice president and general manager of its cleaning and chemical products division. He is a member of the Society of Plastics Engineers and the Institute of Packaging Professionals.
He spoke to Plastics News reporter Angie DeRosa about challenges facing the plastics industry.
Q: How did you choose a career in the plastics industry?
A: I was fortunate to find the University of Massachusetts at Lowell's plastics engineering program. Thanks to the dedication and commitment of an outstanding group of professors, including Ray Normandin, Stephan Orroth, Steve Driscoll, Nick Schott, Bob Malloy and Rudy Deanin, I developed enough skill and plenty of excitement for the industry.
Q: What would you identify as the most significant development (or developments) in plastics over the last 100 years?
A: It's impossible for me to answer this question adequately. But I have a unique perspective on the plastics industry since I have been attached to giant global industrial companies, which are primarily involved in glass, [such as] Saint-Gobain and paper [with] MeadWestvaco.
Relatively speaking, the plastics industry is very young and there is an amazing record of innovation, entrepreneurism, and incremental gains in materials, process and design, which have generated the business we have today and will continue to create opportunity in the future.
Our opportunity as an industry is unlimited. When we reach the limits of current technology, it simply creates the opportunity to change the game, thanks to new development. This really sets our sector apart from most other material-related industries.
Q: What are the biggest changes coming over the next decade in packaging?
A: The most obvious answer is that we must respond to the competitive challenge from China and other emerging countries. Despite the fact that many foreign-based competitors are allowed to cheat, the packaging industry faces new challenges from Asia, which must be addressed by driving down costs via productivity improvements and delocalization and by creating real innovation, which ultimately creates incremental brand equity for our customers.
Separately, and absolutely more important in the long term, we must address the sustainability of our packaging materials through source reduction and recycling.
The plastics industry has a good story to tell particularly from the life-cycle standpoint. But we will need to become more aggressive in the future. I believe this will be driven by the economic reality of permanently higher raw material costs.
As an industry, we need to spend more resource in this area and we will need to make some tough material-related decisions to simplify collection/sorting for recycling.