As a chemical engineer by training, Robert Flores might not be your typical sustainability executive.
After nearly a decade as an engineer at Dow and later Berry Global Group Inc., Flores first added sustainability to his title when he became Berry's material and sustainability engineer in 2013, following a four-year stint as a materials development engineer for the Evansville, Ind.-based company.
Prior to that, he was a research and development engineer, starting in 2004, and then a production engineer starting in 2006 for Dow, putting his chemical engineering degree from Iowa State University to use.
For the past four years, he has been vice president of sustainability for Berry, following his appointment as the company's sustainability director in 2015.
"I focus on trying to make plastics better and drive the industry forward," Flores said. "I think plastics are an amazing material. We just need to continue moving the industry forward — advocating for extended producer responsibility and recycled-content mandates while working in parallel to design products to be reusable, recyclable or compostable and contain recycled content," Flores said.
"As a sustainability professional, I believe the No. 1 thing people need to do is use less natural resources. That is what plastics do vs. alternative materials — use less natural resources," he said.
"People are often quick to criticize plastic waste, but when you look at plastic recycling vs. recycling of other materials, I think what hurts plastic recycling is the success of plastic. Most substrates' highest volume packaging application has a really high recycling rate — cardboard boxes, aluminum cans, glass bottles. Everything else made from that substrate may have a dismal recycling rate, but that single, highly recycled item can carry the whole substrate," Flores said.
"For plastics, plastic bottles have a decent recycling rate — not great, but a lot higher than the 9 percent we often hear about. The issue is that plastics are used in such a wide diversity of applications that it is easy to point to a low overall recycling rate," he said.
Flores began his career at Dow's styrenics pilot plant in Midland, Mich., but got a taste of the business during his college internships, he said.
"I started in a rotational program where I also got to work in technical service and development for films and then automotive. In those roles, I got to experience how plastics could solve customer problems, and I was really impressed with how innovative the plastics industry is," he remembered of his time at Dow.
Flores, who said he is optimistic about the future, gave a peek into his world view when asked about his biggest failure and the lessons learned.
"There are no failures, just learning opportunities. I don't typically look backward, but when I was at Dow, one of my projects was to move to Kankakee, Ill., learn their processes and commission a new plant to make the same products in Midland, Mich. Very shortly after successfully commissioning the first line, Dow announced they were exiting the business. I needed to decommission everything I had just commissioned, and then move back to Kankakee to assist with closing that plant. I'm not sure that it was necessarily a failure, but it felt like a failure. It hurt. But I learned that it is business, not personal, and you have to be agile," he said.
Flores eventually found himself in Indiana and working for Berry, one of the largest plastics processing companies in the world. And it was there that he experienced the biggest influence on his career when it comes to sustainability.
"The biggest impact on my career was likely the recyclability testing I did for our Versalite insulated PP cups — a more recyclable alternative to expanded polystyrene cups. Today, APR [the Association of Plastic Recyclers] has a Responsible Innovation program that evaluates how new package types sort and flow through an MRF [materials recycling facility].
"When I tested Versalite, that did not exist. So I literally went into a variety of MRFs and dumped cups into the stream to see whether or not they ended up in PP bales. I also visited [plastics recycler in Troy, Ala.] KW Plastics to have them test the cups in their stream to verify whether there would be any issues," he said.
"It is not an exaggeration to say this was the inspiration for APR creating the Responsible Innovation recognition program. It also likely changed the trajectory of my career," he said.
Flores, meanwhile, said he believes there is a place for additional regulation over the plastics industry to help expand sustainability. "We need to embrace regulation, especially well-crafted extended producer responsibility and recycled-content mandates. Industry was historically anti-legislation, and we have shifted a lot, but not all of us have shifted. We need to lean in because it is a lot easier to write bans than EPR," he said.
Flores said he admires Rodgers Greenawalt, the longtime executive vice president of operations for Berry, as someone who helps guide him in his work life. "He is very continuous improvement and process focused. Early in my career, I sometimes found his responses less than satisfying, but he is extremely realistic and understands the challenges of implementing changes across a global company. He is a great person to bounce ideas off of and from which to get advice," Flores said.
People are often quick to criticize plastic waste, but when you look at plastic recycling vs. recycling of other materials, I think what hurts plastic recycling is the success of plastic."