Conor Carlin pushes sustainability through SPE position

Oct. 19, 2020
The managing director for Illig North America was recently named VP Sustainability of the Society of Plastics Engineers. In our interview, he discusses what he hopes to achieve in his new position and what others in the industry can do.

Conor Carlin is managing director for Illig North America, and was recently named VP Sustainability of the Society of Plastics Engineers. He spoke with Plastics Machinery Magazine editor Ron Shinn about his 20-year career in the plastics industry and how SPE is encouraging sustainable practices. A shorter version of this interview appeared in the November 2020 issue of Plastics Recycling.

Briefly describe the jobs you have had since graduating from college. 

My first job out of college was in the sales and marketing department at a division of DT Industries, a publicly traded conglomerate that operated in automotive, pharmaceutical and plastics industries. After a brief spell learning about how cotton wool is put into bottles, I settled on Cape Cod to work for Sencorp Inc., an OEM for thermoforming and packaging machinery. Because I had a degree in French, the company asked me to manage the European business, so I spent a lot of time over there, mainly in France and Belgium. After 10 years in OEM sales, I decided to pursue an MBA. This led to an exciting period working for start-ups in clean technology (energy efficiency software, water treatment, biofuels) before being hired at an energy-management company in Boston (now known as Enel X). When the owners of CMT Materials asked if I would be interested to manage their international sales, I returned to the plastics industry via advanced materials for tooling. In that role, I helped to set up a distribution network in Europe and Asia. As of May 1, 2019, I joined Illig as the Managing Director for North America. 

How and when did you get started with SPE? 

My colleagues at Sencorp encouraged me to join the Thermoforming Division of SPE almost immediately. That was in 1998. It was a great way to dive into a cross-section of industry representatives where you could learn and network about the entire value chain, from resin to extrusion to tooling to formed parts. 

What positions have you held with SPE? 

The divisions encourage volunteerism, so I began to get involved as a thermoforming board member first. From there, I co-chaired technical committees for the annual conference. In 2006, I took over as editor for the Thermoforming Quarterly magazine, a position I still hold today and enjoy greatly. After many conversations with industry veteran and SPE leader Roger Kipp, he suggested that I join the SPE Foundation Board, where I served for two years as secretary before being elected to the Executive Board in 2017. At the same time, I joined the Recycling Division as secretary and newsletter editor. This year, I was re-elected in a new position, that of VP Sustainability. 

What does the SPE’s VP Sustainability do? 

By creating this position at the board level, SPE will bring more focus and expertise to a topic that is, frankly, very wide-ranging. In the world of plastics, we have an opportunity to highlight and promote the work that our 20,000 members are doing on a daily basis. The goal is to encourage plastics professionals to share their work via our forums, build networks, and increase subject matter knowledge as it relates to recycling, material selection, bio-based technologies and more. In addition, we are in the early stages of building new links and liaisons with other groups with shared interests.  

How long is your term? 

Three years. 

What are some of the SPE’s initiatives in sustainability? 

SPE is a community of individuals. Members gather in geographic sections or technical divisions to build networks and share knowledge. We have two distinct groups dedicated to sustainability  Recycling and Bioplastics & Renewable Technologies  but many other groups also create content with sustainability themes. Our Polyolefins Conference, for example, contained over a dozen papers on subjects related to sustainability. On Sept. 24, we hosted a virtual event on advances in mechanical and chemical recycling of plastics. Beyond that, we are creating a seminar series that will have monthly talks, most likely via webinar for the foreseeable future. Topics include life-cycle assessments, regulatory changes, design for environment and more.  

Do most SPE members have sustainability as a front-of-mind issue?  

I can’t speak for 20,000 members, but I can say that the most popular and engaging discussion threads on our Chain network (“The Chain” is SPE’s message board for members) are distinctly related to sustainability, recycling, end-of-life, waste management. Given the broader public awareness of the impacts of plastic litter on the environment, I would say that almost everyone has some aspect of sustainability as a front-of-mind issue these days. 

What can individual engineers do about sustainability at their companies? 

From an individual perspective, all employees (not just engineers) can educate themselves about sustainability in their own companies. It takes time and effort to remain current on such a dynamic topic. As editor of Thermoforming Quarterly, I have created a dedicated section for our readers so they can see how their peers are approaching sustainability. Stories range from solar incentives in California to zero-waste programs to M&A [mergers & acquisitions] in the European recycling sector.  

Not every effort has to be a home run, but being aware of new developments in materials science or related technologies is a starting pointNot every initiative has to be wrapped in a “green” package, either  Japanese-style kaizen programs and Gemba Walks have been proven to reduce waste, a key sustainable goal and one that results in net financial benefitsMany companies still require financial justification for new initiatives, so it is important for engineers to understand the monetary impact of ideas. 

Is SPE working with any other organizations on sustainability issues 

Because this new VP position was officially announced in May, we are in the early stages of assessing potential partners. Our past president, Dr. Brian Landes, has engaged with national leaders in both science and politics, leading to a burgeoning discussion with groups such as the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. With strong links to academia, we have access to cutting-edge research while promoting student work at both graduate and undergraduate levels. We are looking to strengthen existing connections with our international chapters, including Latin AmericaIndia and Australia, many of which have developed regional programming on plastics education and local recycling initiatives, regulations and programs. We recently concluded a successful collaboration with an India-based group for RACE: Recycling and Circular Economy conference.  

SPE is not an advocacy organization. We are not chartered to directly influence legislation or to support a specific technology, process, or company in these matters. But we can and should be active participants in the dialogue. 

Do you think this is a pivotal time for plastics recycling and changing the public’s mind about sustainability of the plastics industry?  

This is a very thorny question. A cursory glance at LinkedIn these days suggests there is no shortage of controversy or strong opinions on this topic. It is a pivotal time  public pressure is coming to bear and policymakers are making decisions now that will have impacts for many years to come. Like all difficult decisions, there will be unintended consequences. I think it is fair to say that because plastics are so extremely efficient, they can be deemed the most environmentally friendly choice of material, yet the end-of-life management of plastics is imperfect, to say the least.  

Different solutions are required in different geographic areas. Infrastructure plays a huge role, but perhaps less visibly, so does a society’s priorities. If people are not willing to pay more for convenience, then it will be increasingly difficult to fund the correct infrastructure from a declining pool of funds. With so much competing (and often inaccurate) information available, SPE serves as a repository for objective, science-based knowledge that can and should be shared more widely. Nuance is challenging, however, in an increasingly polarized climate. It is not easy to be comfortable with ambiguity, nor is it easy to convince people to change their mind. 

What in your background has helped you in this SPE role? 

The catalyst for me was The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken, a book that essentially calls for business to serve the interests of the environment. It sparked my passion for new business models and clean technologies. During my MBA program, I worked with a small group of dedicated students and professors to initiate a sustainability curriculum at both graduate and undergraduate levels. This evolved into a series of consulting engagements for start-ups and the development of a fantastic network of clean-tech entrepreneurs in the Boston area.  

International travel has also helped to increase my awareness and understanding of how different countries and cultures think about plastics and sustainability. Conferences in Japan, customer visits in Indonesia and building partnerships in China have all contributed to my personal knowledge base. I think this allows me to appreciate the many shades of gray, while still being confident that the triple bottom line approach to business can be both successful and sustainable.  

Are processing machinery and equipment suppliers such as Illig and others doing enough to make the plastics industry more sustainable? 

I’m tempted to question the premise “more sustainable”  something either is or isn’t sustainable, yet this is not how most people frame the question today. We must accept reality and work with what we have. Topics like energy efficiency are fairly well-understood: Advances in heating technology, servo motors and braking systems to regenerate energy can lower kilowatt hour consumption and associated emissions. If companies themselves have instituted ESG [Environmental, Social and Governanceprograms or innovative energy procurement programs, they can claim (and prove) to be reducing their carbon footprint.  

In thermoforming, Illig makes highly efficient machines that can process the vast majority of polymers, including many novel bio-based materials such as PLA or BASF’s EcovioWe invest a lot in R&D to ensure that these materials can be manufactured efficiently and at scale. Designing equipment that allows converters to create items that are easily recyclable, i.e. separating plastic and paper, is an enabling step to help improve recycling. Recent industry collaboration that allows mixed APET flake to be upcycled into heat-stable rCPET [recycled crystallizable PET] is another example of creating new end markets for materials previously considered as waste only.  

Are there any misperceptions about plastics recycling or sustainability that you wish you could debunk?  

Oof! Where do we start? I wrote a piece for LinkedIn recently about resin codes and misperceptions about what constitutes recyclability. Those who look at the entire ecosystem honestly will acknowledge that there are big challenges for plastics recycling, but a bigger challenge, in my opinion, is that we  as a society  are not willing to ask the hard questions and make the necessary sacrifices to enable true sustainability. Cost externalities are ignored or poorly understood by business and government. For example, there is heated debate about extended producer responsibility (EPR) and who should pay for recycling programs, deposit schemes, take-back programs or infrastructure development, with some saying industry should pay and industry saying that governments (society, via taxes) should pay. Convenience has a cost: We all have to chip in.  

Is this a good time for a young engineer to enter the plastics industry? 

Most certainly! Polymer science is a hugely dynamic field with tremendous growth opportunities, especially in bio-based materials and 3-D printing. 

At the end of your term as VP Sustainability, what do you hope to have accomplished? 

I’d say there are two primary goals: 1) to raise SPE’s profile as a reliable hub for objective and data-driven information on all topics related to plastic and sustainability, and 2) to ensure that the next VP of Sustainability has a solid foundation on which to build. This means closer collaboration among our 80-plus chapters around the world, top-class programming at ANTEC and virtual events, and an engaged community of members that are active in their companies and regions, ensuring that the plastics discussion is based on sound science and facts. 

Name, title: Conor Carlin, managing directorIllig North America  

Company, tenure: Illig LP, 17 months 

Society of Plastics Engineers position: VP Sustainability 

Email: [email protected] 

Home base: Boston 

Years in plastics industry: 20 

Degree, university: Bachelor’s degree from Boston University; Master’s of Business Administration from Babson College