From an early age, Elayna Simmons, 27, always had an interest in how things were made.
"In my high school years, an education in science while surrounded by the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest taught me to ask more questions about where our waste goes and what the role of plastics are in our products and in the environment," she added.
Simmons originally studied biology at Western Washington University but then realized engineering was her calling. Her first job out of college was at PVC film manufacturer Achilles USA in Washington.
"My first promotion to management of Achilles' internal recycling department is still my greatest accomplishment. I felt such honor to be trusted with leadership at such a young age, and I truly believe I made a difference there with my actions. My role let me use my experience from college in running extruders, researching processing conditions and taking leadership, as well as pushing me to learn more about the recycling industry as a whole and ultimately driving my career forward."
At Baerlocher USA in Cincinnati, Simmons is a recycling technical specialist "using additives to make plastics more recyclable and therefore more sustainable."
"I believe that plastics are an important part of sustainability because of the consistently lower LCA [life cycle assessment] value compared to other materials as well as the versatility of plastics in so many fields," she said.
Simmons was also tasked with putting on a recycling conference in August 2022. "It was a hit," she said.
Q: What should the plastics industry do to expand its efforts in diversity and inclusion?
Simmons: My alma mater, Western Washington University, previously had very low percentages of women in their engineering majors. I was one of two in my graduating class from the plastics program.
In the last four to five years, this has changed drastically, and Western's (now-dubbed) polymer materials major beats the national average at 50 percent female students in the classroom. Why? Because they added greater emphasis to circularity and recycling to the major.
We need to zoom out and recognize what's important to people, especially young people. The more the industry can show its support for the environment and circularity, the more diversity we will see.
Additionally, we in the industry need to show respect for people with different views, backgrounds and demographics. All too often I hear about instances of older people in industry disrespecting younger people, especially women, just because they feel threatened or feel the need to defend "what has always been." Without respect for others, we will never gain the much-needed perspective of those who are different than us.
Q: One of our criteria for Rising Stars is whether they are active in plastics industry, manufacturing or their community. How are you involved?
Simmons: I have been involved in manufacturing since day one of my career and have been able to keep in touch with the manufacturing side of the industry while visiting customers to help improve the use of recycled content in their products. As I am still new to the Cincinnati area, I am still learning about ways I can be more involved in my community when it comes to waste management. So far I am the local litter-picker to make sure plastics get in the recycling bin instead of being left on the street.
In the industry, I go to every webinar about sustainability in plastics, plastics recycling or plastics in policy that I can, as well as attending APR meetings and industry shows. With the emphasis on recycling increasing and the importance of policy coming to a head, I am inspired and motivated to gain the experience required to someday be on the board of the Association of Plastics Recyclers so I can offer my point of view and be an influencing member when it comes to policy that affects the industry.
Q: What emerging technology or market most interests you?
Simmons: For me personally, I will continue to be fascinated by the recycling industry as it grows right in front of my eyes. Seeing the change in what companies offer go from their niche markets to broadly accepting recycled materials and trying to get ahead of sustainability trends and bills has been very eye-opening. I am very interested to see the future of chemical recycling as it becomes an emerging field with plenty of room to expand.