Conor Carlin has been thinking about how business and environmentalism intersect for 15 years.
He co-authored and edited the second edition of the book Plastics and Sustainability: Grey Is the New Green: Exploring the Nuances and Complexities of Modern Plastics in 2021. And he's put a lot of volunteer time into the Society of Plastics Engineers, serving as its board-level vice president of sustainability since 2020. On Jan. 1, 2024, he will become president of the group.
All that, he says, has made him very aware of the complexities and trade-offs of material choices and the need to be fact-based in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
But he said it's also convinced him it's time for the industry to put more money into making plastics recycling work better. That starts with laws for extended producer responsibility for packaging that four U.S. states have passed since 2021, he said.
"It's difficult to prescribe what industry at large should do, but I would say that all industry participants should pay into a system that funds the necessary collection infrastructure and sortation technologies to recycle more plastics more efficiently," Carlin said. "If not, we run the risk of being legislated or taxed in a way that forces a negative market shift away from plastics towards materials with higher environmental footprints. The arrival of thoughtful EPR programs in several U.S. states is a welcome and positive development."
Carlin, who in his day job is North American managing director for German thermoform machinery maker Illig Maschinenbau GmbH & Co. KG, said his first plastics job sparked curiosity.
"My first job was with a machine builder. I wasn't always interested in technology and systems, but after spending time on factory floors and seeing how complex machines were designed and assembled, it sparked a curiosity for how things are made in general," Carlin said. "When a colleague gave me a piece of [oriented polystyrene] to take home and put in the toaster oven — and report back my findings — I was determined to learn more about various polymers and how they were made and used."
Carlin, who said he's tried to incorporate sustainability as a major theme into his volunteer work with SPE's magazines, said his thinking around business models and the externalized costs of pollution has been greatly influenced by the writer Paul Hawken and his book The Ecology of Commerce.
"His book was the catalyst that sparked my passion for sustainable business models and clean technologies," he said. "Though we can harness market forces for innovation and change, we must acknowledge a paradox exists between economies that rely on consumer-led spending and the total lack of proper accounting for cost externalities where society picks up the tab for private interests.
"The arrival of EPR for packaging in the U.S. is an encouraging signal," he said. "There is no free lunch — we all have to chip in."
Carlin, who admits to being "very worried" about the environment, said one of the biggest challenges he sees for making economies and society more "sustainable" is how the meaning of the word has been hijacked and diluted.
"Having been involved in sustainability in some form or fashion for about 15 years, it has been frustrating to see the word co-opted by so many different groups that the core meaning — protecting the environment for future generations through the judicious use of resources — has been diluted and almost lost," he said. "The gap between marketing narratives and fact-based efforts to reduce GHG emissions has increased.
"Though it is encouraging to see so many passionate people actively involved in environmental education, whether through industry groups or the creation of new positions in companies, we must remain vigilant against greenwashing and be honest about the complexities and difficult trade-offs we face as societies," Carlin added. "This is not a box-checking exercise."
Carlin said he's been inspired by many colleagues in the plastics and clean-technology industries, including the late Mike Tolinski, managing editor for SPE's Plastics Engineering magazine and author of the first edition of the Plastics and Sustainability book that Carlin later edited. Tolinski was "particularly inspiring because his book was first published in 2012, quite a few years before most people embraced the wider concept of sustainability," Carlin said.
Carlin says he has been influenced by other writers, like Richard Powers and his sprawling 2018 novel about nine people and their relationships to trees, The Overstory.
He admits that if he could be an expert in all things flora, his dream job may be as a botanist.
"I find it incredible that I can still be completely amazed by the workings of plant life," Carlin said. "To have your mind blown by the chemical warfare waged at the subterranean level between living organisms, you have to watch BBC's The Green Planet narrated by the peerless Sir David Attenborough."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Carlin connects that back to his work in plastics.
He said the industry needs to give long-term support to bio-based plastics like polylactic acid, polyhydroxyalkanoates and polyethylene furanoate.
"A colleague from the chemicals industry once told me that the rule of thumb for new polymer development is measured in generations, not years," Carlin said. "The bio-based space offers so much promise — along with biomimicry for design — but we cannot simply replicate nature's genius in fiscal quarters.
"In terms of materials PLA, PHA (and blends thereof) and PEF, we see what patient, sustained investment can yield," he said. "We need to continue to play the long game."