Growing up in Cambodia, Yokly Leng. 25, said he wasn't aware of plastic waste management or plastics engineering as a career, nor did he have access to the internet. Leng went on to graduate from the University of Oklahoma with bachelor's degrees in mathematics and chemical engineering and a master's degree in chemical engineering.
He also was the president of the Society of Plastics Engineers at OU and organized several events with guest speakers to discuss plastics and sustainability. "I also tried to educate people about bioplastics and how plastics can be sustainable," he said.
Leng has been working with plastics since his sophomore year in college, but his first official plastics job started in June 2022, when he became a process development and manufacturing engineer for Woburn, Mass.-based CJ Biomaterials Inc., a division of South Korea-based CJ CheilJedang Corp. and producer of polyhydroxyalkanoate. Leng sees it as "a huge step closer to a sustainable future."
"I am interested in the industry because of the challenges we are facing with plastic waste. I believe that every challenge has a solution, and I want to be a part of the solution," Leng said. "I was very inspired by The Ocean Cleanup initiative when I attended school in Germany. My curiosity and ambition led me to join CJ Biomaterials to make degradable plastics, not only on land but also in marine environments."
Leng said plastics have a bad reputation "mainly because of the lack of end-of-life management."
"It is up to you to change that and make sure that people understand the challenges and solutions to those issues," he said. "And it is not going to happen in a day. It might take generations to make a change, but it could start from you."
Q: What is your greatest achievement?
Leng: My greatest achievement comes from my most recent work at CJ Biomaterials, which I made 100 percent degradable product with our materials. Furthermore, I explored the processing options and compared between twin-screw extruder and Farrel continuous mixer. I found that the products from FCM provides better melt-flow rheology, relative impact and therefore molecular weight retention. Most importantly, FCM requires lower specific energy input as well.
Q: What emerging technology or market most interests you?
Leng: 3D printing is the one [that] interests me the most. Working in polymer space allows me to explore the technology a bit when I was in college. From printing chess pieces to printing human organs, 3D printing can do it all and has opened many doors for plastics. I think using 3D printing of human organs is very fascinating and is the solution to solve organ shortage in the future.
Q: What should the plastics industry do to expand its efforts in diversity and inclusion?
Leng: I believe sending well-educated people to different communities would be very effective. Coming from Cambodia, I had no clue about plastic waste management. I also did not have access to the internet to learn more about that.
Moreover, supporting the educational program such as short-course and higher education program are also important. I personally did not know about the whole field of plastic engineering until I left Cambodia.
Additionally, although most part of the world have access to internet, but we shouldn't ignore those without internet. The plastic industry should not just find the market to sell the product. They should also be responsible for the end-of-life of those plastics. That means providing that information on their products and their website to make sure that it is accessible for everyone. I believe that diversity and inclusion is not only about having different people in the room, but also to provide accurate information to everyone everywhere around the world.