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Big Impact, Little Footprint: Packaging Industry Sustainability Careers

Big Impact, Little Footprint: Packaging Industry Sustainability Careers

Owen Lightbody, Application Development & Circular Economy Team Leader, NOVA Chemicals

Big Impact, Little Footprint: Packaging Industry Sustainability Careers

Owen Lightbody, Application Development & Circular Economy Team Leader, NOVA Chemicals

Michelle JeffordsCan you describe your role and how you feel it links to issues around sustainable packaging? 

My role has two focus areas: developing recyclable packaging and increasing the incorporate of recycled polyethylene (rPE) in packaging. Collecting and recycling flexible packaging is a critical step in our journey to increase the amount of monomaterial, recyclable packaging that’s available today. Over the last five years, NOVA Chemicals has prioritized delivering polyethylene (PE) building blocks to market that enable the replacement of multimaterial, non-recyclable packaging. rPE and other recycled materials reduce the environmental impact of plastics with their low greenhouse gas footprint. These materials can have multiple lifecycles and as we incorporate them into new products, we can reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in landfills.

What does a typical day look like for you? 

A typical day for myself or my team focuses on solving technical problems and connecting with various players in the value chain to accelerate adoption of our solutions. Application Development Specialists at NOVA routinely support partners at our Centre for Performance Applications to produce and evaluate new packaging solutions. A major focus area for the team is new recyclable materials such as Machine Direction Orientation (MDO) or Biaxially Oriented (BOPE) films. We model multilayer films using BONFIRE®, NOVA’s web-based tool to develop recyclable films. This proprietary tool is routinely used to virtually developed recyclable films, as a way to speed developments and reduce the number of prototypes which are tested. The team also works closely with recyclers to improved quality and reliability of rPE.

Can you share with a little about your career trajectory and what led you towards this role and an interest in sustainability? 

I studied chemistry in school as I always enjoyed solving problems and working with my hands in the lab. After obtaining my PhD in the field of catalysis, I worked for a start-up that focused on a catalytic biodiesel production process as a form of clean energy. After a few years and many new experiences, I wanted to return to an area I had previously studied, polymer catalysis. During graduate school I learned about the benefits and widespread use of plastics. I was soon introduced to NOVA Chemical and chose to join their team to pursue a career within the industry. During my 12 year tenure at NOVA, I’ve held roles in Additive Technology, Product Development and Technical Service always with a focus on flexible packaging.

What skills do you think are most important for a role in sustainable packaging issues?

I feel that the most importance factor for success is mindset. Having a growth mindset and focusing on what can be done to make an improvement instead of why something isn’t possible is critical to accomplish change. We need people who believe challenges can be overcome and are dedicated to bringing innovation forward that solves circularity obstacles. Other skills like clear and concise communication to influence people of the sustainability benefits of flexible packaging are also incredible important. Finally, being inquisitive, asking the right open-ended questions and demonstrating critical thinking will also set someone up for success in any endeavor.

As an industry, where do you think packaging is making strides on sustainability and where do we still struggle?

Recycled content suitable for food packaging is an area that’s come very far. Earlier this year, NOVA launched a recycled HDPE product, SYNDIGO rPE-0860-FC, that can be used in food packaging. Significant time and testing were devoted to this effort. Having gone through the process, we now have a deep understanding on what is needed to produce a high-performing and consistent recycled product.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing packaging sustainability right now? 

The biggest changes I see are the rate of change and the public perception on plastics due to stories on microplastics and ocean waste. To combat the public perception, I feel that we need quick wins related to the amount of flexible packaging that is being recycled and the amount of recycled content used in packaging. If the plastic value chain doesn’t act quickly and show tangible progress toward improved recycling infrastructure for flexible packaging, less sustainable options such as glass, metal and paper which will be favored because they have a clear recycling pathway.

What is one common perception around packaging that you believe challenges the notion that packaging can be a tool for sustainability? 

I think a common misconception on packaging is how sophisticated food packaging can be. There are multiple types of polyethylene used in packaging, along with other polymers, multilayer film structures, coatings, etc. When I’ve done community outreach, most people are amazed at the technology and rationale that I use to develop flexible packaging designs. The significant extension to a food products shelf life is often overlooked by the public. People in the industry understand that preventing food waste has a direct relationship with reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We also need better education that shows the value of plastics as a more sustainable alternative to paper or metal.

If you had one piece of advice for young professionals interested in sustainability, why should they consider the packaging industry? Your specific role? 

Packaging plays a critical role in our daily lives and has a place in almost everything consumers interact with. The industry is filled with high tech, significant learning opportunities and at the end of the day, you will be working to enable change that is required to make our way of living more sustainable. Additionally, the packaging industry is working hard to make packaging more recyclable, increasing recycling rates and use more recycled content in packaging. All these factors will allow a young professional to be proud of the work they are doing and the industry they are in.

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