A chance meeting on a golf course has led to a long career in sustainable plastics for Robert Render.
Render co-founded Maine Plastics in 1992 after his father met a plastics recycling professional at a golf course.
"I had been working in our family's metal recycling business and switched over to plastics, where I literally had to start from the bottom," Render said.
At the start, Render worked in the plant operating grinders and balers, driving a forklift, managing employees and learning about plastics and their applications. "I never looked back, only forward," he said. "You can't replace practical, get-your-nails-dirty experience to understand all the aspects of a business, and particularly the recycling biz."
Maine Plastics was based in Zion, Ill., and later had several locations before shutting down in 2014. In 2006, Render had started his own recycling-focused consulting firm, A Greener Solution, before selling it to Casella Waste Systems in 2013. He then worked for Casella and for material supplier Ravago Group while operating another consulting firm, Lakeside 360 Partners of Skokie, Ill., which he had launched in 2014.
In hindsight, Render said that Maine Plastics expanded too quickly and depended too heavily on a single large supplier.
"You need to know when to stay the course and when to pivot," Render said. "Focus to achieve a goal is important, but shutting out contrary opinions or only seeing the upside can be the result. Weigh all the options and have a backup plan."
Render said that plastics "are ubiquitous because their properties lend themselves to a wide range of applications that sustain our lives."
"I believe we need to create communities of collaboration to recover the value of plastics after their first use and keep that value in the economy," he added. "That means industry, government, brands, consumers and the financial sector all working towards that goal in a solution-oriented process."
Render pointed out that he's spent his entire professional career in recycling and sustainability "in a solution-oriented mode." He added that while at A Greener Solution, the firm managed in-house recycling and landfill diversion programs, training and collaborating with employees to determine the right solution.
"In effect, AGS created a new industry of programmatic management of net-zero systems," Render said. "This approach is used now by trade associations, accounting and consulting firms, and major waste and recycling firms and is taught in colleges and universities globally."
Locally, Render is a member of the Skokie Environmental Advisory Commission, which has created a sustainability action plan, hired a sustainability coordinator and now is involved with zoning, business development, recycling and waste programs. He's also taught seminars at DePaul University, been part of many panels at industry events and is a former chair of the recycling committee of the Plastics Industry Association.
Looking to the future, Render said that the plastics industry "needs to stop apologizing for its success in developing products that drive other industries that make our lives better." The industry also can lead a solutions-oriented process that brings all stakeholders together to enhance sustainability and to increase climate resilience, reduce carbon impact and eliminate plastic waste.
"The investments from industry are a good start, but more resources are needed," Render said. The industry "must be willing to look at every tool in the toolbox," he added, including regulatory and legislative solutions to fund recycling infrastructure, stewarding of products after their first use, educating consumers, and using science and data to make the case.
Local action also is important.
"Be on your town council, serve on the town's environmental commission, and where none exists, create one," Render said.
I believe we need to create communities of collaboration to recover the value of plastics after their first use and keep that value in the economy."