Berry Global Inc. Director of Innovation Yantao Zhu Hughes is out to change the reputation of plastics while also being environmentally conscious.
"[The] plastics industry does not have such a positive public image in recent years due to visible plastic waste around us," said Hughes, who graduated from the University of Southern Indiana with a master's degree in general management and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a doctorate in chemistry. "I spend a lot of time thinking about what we can do to reduce the environmental impact of plastics cost effectively while enjoying all the benefits plastics has to offer."
Early on in her career, Hughes, 45, was interested in the broad reach of plastics in everyday lives: "It can be [found] everywhere from water bottles to spaceships to everything in between."
Now, it's about helping the public form a balanced view.
"Banning plastics because of pollution is throwing the baby out with the bath water, in my mind," she said. "We need to engage the public better in trying to solve the problem in a more constructive way."
Hughes is interested in the micro-organisms that can "completely break down commodity plastics quickly in a controlled environment." She said she thinks the fundamental solution will come from biology and that the industry "needs to help nurture those developments."
Hughes started as a platform chemist with GE Plastics and transitioned to Sabic Innovative Plastics, where she was a business manager until July 2017, when she joined Berry as director of innovation.
"[As a platform chemist] I ran many polycondensation experiments in the lab. I was fascinated with polymer science in college. It amazed me and still does how versatile plastics can be in making our lives so much more enjoyable," Hughes said.
Her advice to those interested in the impact of plastics is to get involved.
"Plastic is one of the most amazing inventions of [the] human being," she said. "This industry has a lot to offer whether your interest is in business or technology. If you are concerned about the negative impact plastics has or could have, you can have more real influence from inside the industry."
In her spare time, Hughes enjoys doing hot yoga, running and reading about history. She said she would love to do work in providing continued learning opportunities and chances to pass on her knowledge to younger generations.
The best advice she has ever received is to "live and let live."
"It's important to achieve our full potential; however, not at the price of our and other people's happiness," she said. "Allow yourself and people around you to experiment, to choose their way to deliver on their promises and to allow some space to make mistakes."