Brand owners at every level are embracing sustainability. That interest is spurring more work by materials suppliers to provide options to customers.
In a Q&A with Sustainable Plastics Editor Karen Laird, Walter Ripple, vice president of sustainability at Avient Corp., discusses how Avient and its products are seeking to make a difference.
Q: We talk a lot about sustainability, but it seems as if different people have different definitions of what it actually is. So, how do you, at Avient define sustainability?
Ripple: Avient's strategy is based on the four cornerstones of people, products, plant and performance, and these four are all inextricably linked. In other words, you can't have one of those without the other, which means we're focused on all those areas. We align our activities, our messaging and our goals with all four of these cornerstones.
In terms of how we define sustainability, for a number of years now, we have offered our sustainability promise and we've adopted components of the 1987 UN Brundlandt report, in which they talk about sustainability in terms of meeting the needs of the present without compromising future generations' ability to meet their needs. To be honest, I've seen a lot of different definitions and I've tried to come up with some of my own, but frankly, to me, that says it all. Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future.
And sustainability has been core to our strategy for a very long time. I know that everyone's talking about it now, and so are we, but, as the results we have already achieved show, we are not new to this. To give you an example: since 2016, which was kind of a baseline year for us when we started measuring things, our sustainability portfolio has doubled in sales. And in terms of planet and environmental initiatives, I can say that in the last three years, we've been able to improve our carbon emissions by 30 percent, or reduce them by 30 percent.
Q: How long have you been in the role of Vice President of Sustainability at Avient?
Ripple: Not that long, but let me tell you a bit about how I got here. I've been in the industry for 28 years or so. I started my career with Shell Chemical Co., after getting a bachelor's in chemistry from Texas A&M, and I spent about eight years there. I then moved to Avient, although when I joined we were of course still PolyOne.
A little over 20 years ago I moved to the company's specialty elastomers business. Prior to my current role — which I've been in a little over two years — I was running the global thermoplastics elastomers business. Why was I drawn to my current role? It's simple. Sustainability megatrends and the challenges associated with them were becoming more and more important to the planet and for our customers, and I wanted to be part of driving Avient's strategy to do our part.
And in July of last year, we purchased the Clariant Masterbatch business and changed our name. The idea was that two companies were coming together who were leaders in both our industries, so we formed under a new name called Avient. And a big component of that is the sustainable solution set that we offer to the industry.
Q: Can you say something about that? Is that a solution set targeted at the development of specific sustainable chemicals and polymers or specific applications?
Ripple: I think the best way to answer this is maybe to point to a couple of areas — sustainable megatrends — with the most urgent needs that we are addressing. And which has therefore led to maybe some of the fastest growth, at least that we've seen. Two of the areas, recyclability and circular economy are certainly among these.
In that regard, what immediately comes to mind is packaging. Consumers are demanding improved sustainability in the products they buy from the companies who make those products. Those sustainability demands also extend to the product packaging. Obviously, there is an urgent need to come up with more recyclable packaging and to use more recycled materials or a bioderived type of material in packaging, simply because of the plastics waste problem out there. And there are a number of brand owners who have made very public commitments out there about this particular segment. I would say that this is definitely an area of industry focus for sure.
In fact, the interest and activity for our sustainable solutions used in packaging has never been higher.
The second area I would mention — and there are many others — would be lightweighting. First of all, lightweighting's been around for a long time. It was probably one of the first growth areas for plastics many, many years ago. But the difference now is the urgency to improve carbon emissions, which makes lightweighting a major theme in transportation or the car industry. And our customers are looking to reduce carbon emissions, also during the production of their products, and to improve gas mileage. We have been addressing this trend for a while and we have a number of different solutions that help to do that. From different types of thermoplastic composite materials — short glass nylons, for example — to long-fibre technologies with either glass or carbon can literally replace metal at up to 80 percent weight savings for steel and about 50 percent for aluminium, as well as different types of panels and other types of layered constructions that we can supply to help our customers to meet their lightweighting goals.
Another approach to lightweighting is the use of specialty foaming agents. One of our foaming agent concentrates, Hydrocerol, is considered an eco-conscious alternative to SVHC-listed chemicals. And using these, we can help our customers get a weight reduction of 20-30 percent, and sometimes maybe even more, within the same part, which is a very big deal!
If you can imagine: we work with one very well-known OEM in Europe to reduce their weight by 25 percent in their dashboards. Just think about, first, how much savings they are going to have by using less material; and second, the saving they are achieving through lightweighting in their manufacturing process, in addition to the cycle time savings. And then on top of that, the fuel mileage of the cars being produced is also improved.
So, while there are many, many others, those are the two that come to mind with maybe the most urgent needs.
Q: How are you helping your customers use more sustainable material?
Ripple: Our mission is to help our customers meet their sustainability goals and there are a number of ways we can do that. One is based, of course, on the raw materials that go in or the processing etc. The other way is just by helping them to meet their goals around a number of different megatrends — challenges — that they're trying to overcome.
So what we've done is, you know we've got close to 35 thousand commercial products, we basically try to help our customers meet their goals either through customization or in other different ways. We categorize them in what we call our eight ways to enable sustainability for our customers, which include lightweighting, as we've already discussed; recycling or recyclability; lowering VOCs; bio-derived content, enabling renewable energy or helping our customers reduce the amount of energy that they use or the amount of materials that they need to use in a package.
There are a number of different ways that we help them, so when it comes to the raw material side of it let's say, or the make-up of the polymers that we use we do have bio-derived types of solutions and we have invested research dollars into that. It's definitely what I would say is an emerging trend; everyone is asking about it right now: we're ready to take off when that market does take off . We have additives and masterbatches based on PHA, PLA; we offer materials with bio-derived polyethylenes, nylons, copolyesters, copolyamides and a handful of other ones as well.
At the end of the day we're just trying to meet the material, the recycled, the bio-derived content and the polymer type that our customers are looking for. So where we are in the value chain — we don't have reactors where we're making polymers, we are taking those polymers — be them bio-derived or recycled or whatever and then we're formulating these in a way to meet the exact needs that our customers have.
Bio-derived is one way we do that; another way is recycled content. Regarding the latter, we have a very large portfolio, a very robust portfolio of materials that work in two ways: one, we have additives that are processing aids and many other things that actually help brand owners to improve the amount of recycled content that they can put in their packages. Or additives and masterbatches that just simply make their packages more recyclable. So we do it in two different ways.
Q: One of Avient's sustainability goals is to enable 100 percent of its products manufactured for packaging to be recyclable or reusable by 2030. How will you achieve this?
Ripple: Let me first say that for me, there is no doubt that the circular economy and recyclability are currently among the most prevalent trends, maybe along with lightweighting, out there right now.
A lot of brands — and I think it's like over 400 of them — have made commitments to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, pledging both to make their products more recyclable and to incorporate more recycled content in them. And in some cases, also biorenewable.
But as you know, polymers, polymer systems and polymer formulations also need some type of help to make it through all of the different processes that they go through, not to mention a bunch of recycled processes. We have developed additives and masterbatches that help that whole process happen, such as anti-oxidant types of systems and viscosity builders, which actually recyclers can use to improve the mechanical properties and the molecular weight of PET to keep more of that recycled material in the prime recycling stream. In terms of customers who are looking to improve recycled content we have masterbatches and additives and toners that can help to mask the color that comes along with adding more recycled content.
We have scavengers that can help to overcome the bad taste and odour that may be lingering. We have processing aids: when you put more PCR in along with prime, it can actually decrease by 25 percent or even more the processability of that material, lengthening the processing time. We're able to improve that by 25-30 percent, allowing processors to utilize the recycled material a little bit better. And we have ways to clarify the material: the more clarified the PCR is, the more PCR content you can use and still obtain what looks to be a clear bottle. These are just a few examples of the ways we are helping our customers to achieve that. We've a very robust portfolio, and now that Clariant masterbatch business is with us, we even have a broader suite of technologies.
Q: You officially opened your new Cycleworks facility last November. What is that exactly?
Ripple: It's something we are actually very excited about. It's a demonstration plant designed to help customers tackle and overcome the challenge of plastics recycling, set up in such a way as to mimic a real world circular recycling system in a research environment.
Our facility contains around 4,000 square feet of pilot-scale equipment in Pogliano, Italy, near Milan, and we can extrude formulations, we can make packages, we can grind them up, we can wash them and then we can go through that whole process again, starting with extruding them again.
And we are partnering up and down the value chain to try to understand the different polymer chemistries and additives and masterbatches and other types of formulating agents how that impacts the recycling stream. So that is new and there is a lot of interest in working with us on that.
We try to help our customers to meet their goals, and it's coming up fast — many of their goals are by 2025 that's going to be here faster than we all know it.
It's in Italy because it came as a result of our acquisition of Clariant. It is a facility they have there. It doesn't hurt that it's in Europe where there's a lot of legislation on recyclability and the use of recycled content coming up. I don't think it's going to be the only one of these, and I would imagine that over time we'll have more of these, but we started out there as a result of our acquisition.
Q: It is often said that sustainability is a joint venture: No one company can do it on its own. This had led to the development of new value chain collaborations. Is this something Avient has noticed? Is Avient participating in any such projects orcollaborations?
Ripple: This is something that we've been doing for a long time: remember, we're more or less in the middle of the value chain, between technologies and the polymer suppliers in helping the brand owners and processors out there to meet their objectives. We have been partnering throughout the value chain for some time.
So it's really critical and I like the way you said this: yes, it's almost like more of a JV. I could not agree more. There's no way that one company, one state, one country, one continent could make this happen. This is going to have to be a global effort to make this happen.
Let me just say that we've been partnering in the value chain for a long time, but that also, back in early 2019, back in the first quarter, we were also a founding member joining the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. That alliance is phenomenal. We sit down at the table with leaders in our industry, from brands, to recyclers to waste management companies, to polymer suppliers and everything in between trying to develop innovation to help either put the infrastructure in that's needed to recycle more or recycle better or to find innovative technologies that can help to do that.
You asked me about our goal of achieving 100 percent recyclable or reusable materials by 2030, well, this is one of the ways we'll do that. Innovation is number one and we are continuing to work on that. But partnering throughout the value chain to come up with better and faster solutions is another way. We're working throughout the value chain again, through the Alliance to get that done. In my view, it simply won't happen without having those types of alliances and collaborations in place.
In fact, the Alliance has made some really good progress thus far. Efforts to prevent the leakage of plastic waste into the environment, create value for plastic waste, raise global recycling rates, and improve design for circularity are already underway. We're also looking at advanced mechanical recycling, advanced chemical recycling, new sorting technologies, and new infrastructure throughout the world and especially in high leakage areas.