As a polymer scientist, P&G’s John Layman thinks fairly regularly about plastic and in particular about how to recover, recycle and ultimately reuse the material. As he sees it, polypropylene, a material used in containers from detergent packaging to bottle caps, adds to the convenience of modern life. But its own end of life? That’s complicated.
One challenge with plastic is in its recycling. As much as consumers want to help, diligently sending their yogurt cups and water bottles into blue bins, these containers get thrown together and contaminated making them difficult to sort, or their materials re-used.
Layman came up with a new process, one that turns polypropylene into a material that’s, like new says Layman. The end result is a material that can re-used and repurposed, creating a new market, and a sustainable solution.
Hear more from Layman and the way he approaches the problem through a startup approach from inside P&G, drawing on its expertise as a cleaning company to come up with a new way to clean recycled plastics.
Our program on recycling of polypropylene involves putting our expertise as a cleaning company. You know, we clean surfaces, your hair, your clothes, we also put that to work to cleaning recycled plastics. I’m a polymer scientist by training, meaning, plastics are made of polymers. And believe it or not, that’s a speciality you can, you can study and go to school for. And as many polymer scientists in the community, we’ve all benefited and seen the miracles that polymers and plastics have in our everyday life. But we also see that the same attributes and properties that make plastics, such a miracle, they’re lightweight, they’re durable, they’re inexpensive, these things also have consequences that those same attributes that make everyday life possible also complicate the end of life. The same properties, because it’s inexpensive, they’re very abundant. They’re used in everyday applications, whether you go to the hospital or through consumer goods, you touch and experience polypropylene every day.
We can see that there’s a huge challenge ahead of us as a technical community, which is, now that we’ve invented these materials, we need to find a way to responsibly recover them, repurpose them and reuse them as much as possible, both to prevent their leakage and accumulation in the natural environment. But also, it reduces the need to pull on primary petrochemical feedstocks for production. And so for a long time, the polymer scientists community has seen this as an emerging need. And we feel like we have a responsibility to to help bring technical solutions, like our polypropylene cleaning technology to solve that. Most recycled plastics are usually gray or black. As we tested those, we realized that the color and the contamination were unsatisfactory. Polypropylene historically has not been a widely recycled plastic both across the United States and across the globe. And so with technologies like ours, we’re able to find a market for polypropylene because we can purify it, clean it up to a state where it can be reused, and this should encourage demand for recycling of these plastics.
We had to generate excitement around our technology and our idea. We had to of course, work with our partners at Ventures to bring funding to the idea. And from that respect, we operated day to day much like an entrepreneur would. We pitched our technology to investors, we secured funding, and we took you know every day at a time was a journey towards our vision. And I think entrepreneurs share in that process where you start off with a fledging idea. You rally people around that idea, you raise the necessary resources, most importantly, getting the right people around you. And then you bring that vision to life and it scales and it grows with every passing day. I believe that the process we went through is no different than any other entrepreneur we go through when they have a great idea or a great technology they want to bring to life.
I also have a personal passion like many in this space. I have solar panels on my home here in Cincinnati, which is pretty rare. It’s not the sunniest of locations, but on my little half acre and my subdivision backyard, I have solar panels that feed my house. So I’m personally really passionate about reducing the environmental impact of myself and my family and through my job which you know, is joy every day. I can help the company reduce its environmental impact through technologies and innovations and this polypropylene cleaning technology and other technologies we’re working on to source more environmentally responsible products and our materials for our products and packaging.