If you're looking for insight into the future of the plastics industry, the young people featured in this week's Rising Stars special report are an excellent place to start.
This is our third year of Rising Stars, and the quality continues to shine. The criteria is pretty simple — we put out a call for talented young people in the plastics industry, age 35 and below, who are future — or current — leaders.
I encourage candidates to share stories about their work, interests and concerns. They talk about the impact they're having on the job, and their vision for the future. It's also a great opportunity for them to highlight their community and industry activities, and to give a shout out to their mentors.
Many of my industry contacts shared names. Many more of the honorees came forward on their own. And more than a few good candidates didn't complete the survey in time. (I hope to hear from them next year.)
I'm pleased to share some great stories about talented Generation X and millennial professionals who already are doing amazing things in their careers.
Any time we talk to industry leaders, especially the past few years, a top concern is how to recruit the next generation of workers and managers into manufacturing, and specifically into plastics.
Many of our Rising Stars have the same concern.
Zac Smith, a 24-year-old sales and customer service regional manager at Absolute Group of Cos., said it's challenging when there are so few peers his age to network with of the industry events.
“Perhaps it's because our industry is somewhat unseen to the general public, or perhaps university programs are not pushing students in our direction, but the industry is in serious demand of a youth infusion,” he said.
“I would like to help young engineers, service technicians, sales people and others to discover the opportunities the plastics industry offers,” Smith said.
The sentiments were echoed by others. Our Stars are personally experiencing career advances in plastics, and they wonder how they can get more people their age to join them.
Focus on sustainability
Another topic that just about everyone shared was sustainability. Read the profiles, and you'll see it come up again and again.
“I think more people need to understand [plastics] advantages and also meet personally and cultivate trust in the bright men and women, fathers and mothers, who work to make the global food supply safer with plastics,” said Kyra Douglas, senior director for global regulatory affairs at the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
“There is a misconception that plastics are not sustainable,” said Paige Kassalen, commercial trainee and representative on the Solar Impulse 2 ground crew for Covestro LLC.
“People often think of the plastics industry as not environmentally friendly, so they are often surprised that we are a triple bottom line company that strives for zero waste to landfill and has the planet as one of our core pillars,” said Christina Keller, president of CK Technologies.
Maybe one reason so many of the young people feel strongly about sustainability is because it's already an important part of their jobs.
Robert Flores worked with the Association of Plastics Recyclers to confirm that Berry Plastics' Versalite drink cups are recyclable. Rebekah Mumm helped Silver Line Plastics Corp. become the first pipe manufacturer to receive sustainability certification with the Plastic Pipe and Fittings Association.
Sadaf Shafiei Sabet is working on developing the next generation of eco-friendly plastic materials with Solegear Bioplastic Technologies Inc.
Brendan Wilson at Montrose Molders Corp. is encouraging OEMs to use bioplastics like cellulose-filled polypropylene, to take advantage of the potential part weight and cycle time reductions.
It's clear that the next generation of plastics industry leaders have an environmental streak.
Improving plastics message
The interest in sustainability came to mind last week in a conversation with Steve Russell, vice president for plastics at the American Chemistry Council. ACC released a study on the environmental cost of using plastics in consumer goods and packaging compared to other materials.
According to the study, plastics are much more sustainable than other materials. In other words, plastics have science on their side. It's a point that many in the plastics industry have been making for a long time.
But is science enough? Russell made an interesting point: That the industry needs to appeal not just to consumers' reason, but to their emotion, too. Both the head and the heart, is how he put it.
It's a good point. Logically, plastics are often the best material in some applications, but that doesn't stop some consumers from feeling like they're doing the right thing by using another product that's heavier, or takes more energy to create.
It's a difficult message to communicate, and it's one that many consumers will be skeptical about if it comes exclusively from the plastics industry. But it's apparent to me that the industry has plenty of young people who are ready to carry it forward.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.” Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.