As a millennial, I've known I live in a plastic-polluted world with a changing climate for most of my life. After reporting on the plastics industry while living through the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years, it's clear to me that human problems, like pollution and climate change, directly impact business. So why aren't plastics manufacturers making sustainability their first priority?
Plastics companies worked tirelessly during the pandemic to help their communities through that crisis, sometimes even donating products to the issue that we all collectively faced.
The incentive to get moving on sustainability is clear to many plastics industry millennials who recognize that business can be affected by these human issues, too.
"There's a generation wanting to create business in a different way," Patricia Miller, owner and CEO of Woodstock, Ill.-based injection molder M4 Factory and a fellow millennial, told me in an interview.
"Small to midsize manufacturing is often generationally owned," Miller said. "A lot of people coming into that next generation of ownership, they might have the title, but they don't have final decision-making authority."
Because Miller didn't grow up in the business, she said, she doesn't "have those same pressures or challenges that I see for a lot of my peers who still have their dad owning the business and in there making day-to-day decisions."
The current age range of the average plastics firm's workforce is "concerning," she said.
"As that old guard transitions out, there will be much more oxygen for [a new generation of leaders] to be able to make lasting decisions," Miller said. "As a business owner, you have to think about profitability and how you make sure the business can stay alive."
M4 has a workforce makeup of about 16 percent Gen Z, 42 percent millennial, 36 percent Gen X and 6 percent baby boomer.
"We want all of the generational representation because there's a lot of experience and tribal knowledge that needs to move from one generation to the next," she said. "We're very much an anomaly. … You have to be a forward thinker and have that energetic desire of being in a growth-oriented organization."
Another millennial leader in plastics, Tim Ponrathnam, sustainability director at Evansville, Ind.-based Berry Global, started a mentoring program called Spark in 2018 to help young professionals improve skills and grow within the company. The program unfortunately was stopped in 2020 due to COVID-19 pandemic, but a few people who were a part of that program did end up getting promotions at Berry, Ponrathnam said.