Hillenbrand's Tory Flynn pushes beyond the status quo

Feb. 6, 2024
The company's chief sustainability officer and vice president of corporate affairs embraces being “strategically unreasonable” to address challenges in plastic recycling.  

From the spring 2024 issue of Plastics Recycling.

Edited by DeAnne Toto 

Hillenbrand is a global industrial company headquartered in Batesville, Indiana, that serves a wide number of industries, including durable plastics, food and recycling, with a mission to develop solutions that provide greater returns for its shareholders and excellent value for its customers. 

“Even though we are an equipment manufacturer, we play a leading role in the plastics value chain,” Chief Sustainability Officer and Vice President of Corporate Affairs Tory Flynn says. “Our machines support the development of durable plastics, which is an enabler for some of the world’s leading sustainable practices, like light-weighting electric vehicles, prolonging the shelf life of food, making medical advancements and delivering quality health care. Durable plastics are and will continue to be vital to our economy, which is why we must focus on advancing sustainability within the plastics value chain.” 

She adds that the company sees opportunity in helping its customers reevaluate their material use, whether that be supporting a transition to using bio-resin or using its co-injection technology to increase the use of postconsumer recycled (PCR) plastics.  

Through its operating companies, Hillenbrand has key positions along the plastics value chain. “Because of this, we can play an active role in advancing the circular plastics economy,” Flynn says. “For example, the equipment and systems we sell support a closed-loop system where plastics are made, recycled and repurposed. This cycle begins with Herbold Meckesheim and its technologies that specialize in the front-end recycling processes to separate, shred, fine grind, wash, and dry recycled plastic. Materials are then put into feeding and extrusion equipment from Coperion, where they are transformed back into raw material, including plastic pellets, which are a basic building block in plastics manufacturing. Through equipment made by our other operating companies, the plastic pellets can then be extruded or molded into high-quality and sustainable recycled products.”  

In the following interview, Flynn offers her perspective on Hillenbrand’s approach to sustainability and the important role partnerships play.   

Plastics Recycling (PR): How does Hillenbrand approach sustainability and what role do partnerships play in achieving your objectives? 

Tory Flynn (TF): People are often caught off guard when I say that I do not want a sustainability strategy. Instead, I want sustainability to be fully integrated into our operations so that it simply becomes “how we do business.” Our purpose, “Shape What Matters For Tomorrow,” provides the foundation for this to happen. Our purpose is more than words. It guides our company’s decisions from the business initiatives we choose to pursue [to] how we attract talent, the partnerships we establish and more.  

For sustainability to really be realized, we must think outside of our own four walls. We must apply “systems thinking” to our approach, which essentially looks at our larger sphere of influence and engages critical stakeholders and the full value chain. Developing partnerships to achieve mutual outcomes has broader influence than just us working to solve something on our own.  

In addition, we can’t be blind to the future. Sustainability is a long-term philosophy challenging us to make today’s decisions to benefit long-term outcomes and future generations.  

PR: How does Hillenbrand develop ideas for partnerships? 

TF: I have always believed partnerships need to go beyond writing a check. At Hillenbrand, we have created a strategic framework for partnerships in four core areas that align to our purpose and to what our stakeholders deemed “material” through a double materiality assessment: 1) health and safety, 2) environment, 3) diversity, equity and inclusion and, 4) workforce and trade skills. We then assess what organizations can further support what we call “engagement” criteria, which includes employee engagement through volunteerism or education, opportunities to partner with customer/suppliers’ goals or [to] increase our access to talent.  

A great demonstration of our framework at work is our partnership with [California-based] Net Impact, an organization on 300-plus college campuses that engages emerging leaders on new challenges for the greater good. We designed a partnership with them to activate the next generation in developing solutions to address the challenges the plastics value chain faces from creation to collection.  

As a result of this partnership, we were able to engage the future generation in shaping the responsible life cycle management of plastics, actively engage our employees in mentoring these students, partnered with leading brands and made our name known to future talent. Not to mention, we had great outcomes, including awarding an Indian-based startup that is turning postconsumer multilayer plastics [MLP] into new products, as well as a Tanzanian-based startup using solar-powered vending stations to offer in-demand consumer products in exchange for plastic waste, helping to divert plastic waste from landfills to name a few. 

PR: What are your goals for partnerships?

TF: I try to be unreasonable, or rather “strategically unreasonable.” Reasonable gets status quo. Most of our partnerships are created to solve huge challenges. If we are reasonable in partnership designs, we will always have the status quo. If we can think big and not be trapped by thinking reasonably, we are following a pathway that will allow us to grow.  

Each designed partnership should have its own individual goals and outcomes structured with that agreement. We aim for multiyear engagements to better understand the data and continue to refine the partnerships and build upon our outcomes.  

Ideally, the outcome is built upon serving a greater purpose and can be shared with more than just our company. The goal is to use our resources wisely to multiply outcomes. 

PR: Why is “systems thinking” important as you develop partnerships? 

TF: Systems thinking is vital to developing partnerships because it focuses on interactions of an entire value chain versus just an interaction between two parties. A great example is thinking about talent. We have a company full of incredibly talented associates, many of whom have an engineering background. Unfortunately, that’s in short supply right now. We can’t magically graduate more talent in engineering without addressing the full “system,” which means designing partnerships to connect the full value chain for engineering. This started with Hillenbrand working to increase kids’ interest in STEM in K-6 to connect with and become Girls Inc.’s National STEM partner to Net Impact’s college campus access. Developing these relationships between the whole system allows us to work together in different ways to solve complex issues. 

PR: How does your purpose fit?

TF: Our purpose, “Shape What Matters For Tomorrow,” guides our ambitions, actions and impact and is ultimately how we add value to the world through our people, products and partnerships. If we are going to pursue a partnership, we want to make sure it is mutually valuable to us, our potential partner and extends our collective resources. 

In today’s tight labor market, Hillenbrand and our operating companies have focused investments on educational partnerships designed to build diverse talent pipelines and develop the next generation of manufacturing leaders. 

We also look for ways to engage educational institutions and have partnered with Drake University’s Environmental Science and Sustainability Department. Through this partnership, we are assigned a handful of students to act as “consultants” who work on a real-world sustainability challenge facing a business and propose a strategy to solve the challenge. This works to support Drake’s classroom learning to application and always gives us new ideas and access to future talent.  

PR: Tell me how you came to work with Net Impact. How do Net Impact’s strengths complement Hillenbrand’s strengths and goals? 

TF: When I was reviewing final-round candidates for an internship at Hillenbrand, one highly qualified candidate shared with me that he was not sure if he wanted the internship because he did not want to work for a company that was part of the plastics value chain. I was shocked but quickly noted that plastics are an incredibly valuable material that supports sustainability megatrends. I asked him to consider not being a judge on the sidelines but rather [to] join us to help solve some of the most pressing problems facing our industry.  

He joined our company and made a meaningful impact. He was a member of the Net Impact chapter I met with, and we ended up forming a partnership with their national organization, eventually forming the Circular Plastics Case Competition to engage the next generation in how we can shape the responsible life cycle management of plastics.  

PR: What plastic value chain challenges have you been able to address through the Circular Plastics Case Competition? How can these results be applied more broadly to the plastic value chain? 

TF: The reality is that according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD], only 9 percent of total plastic waste gets recycled, while 19 percent gets incinerated and the remaining 72 percent goes into landfills, or worse yet, leaks into our environment. To move the needle on these metrics, we need to drastically alter our approach to solving this problem and move away from the debate of “if plastics should exist.” They do, and we need to bring the entire value chain together to close the loop and prevent leakage.  

Participants in the competition produced highly innovative solutions for the complex issue of how to continue innovating in a circular economy. For example, first place in the competition was awarded to Ashaya, an Indian-based startup that is turning postconsumer, multilayer plastic into new products, beginning with recycled sunglasses. Other submissions included solar-powered vending stations in rural Tanzania that offer in-demand consumer products in exchange for plastic and a concept conceived by MBA students in Spain to employ vending machines in grocery stores across the country to eliminate unrecyclable toilet paper plastic packaging. Ideas like these can help keep metric tons of plastic out of our environment and present ways to use plastic waste in new projects.  

As this partnership and competition continue to grow, we expect to continue addressing issues with the plastics value chain and bring along more partners to look at this on a larger scale. This is not a single or one-size-fits-all solution; it is important to continually cultivate ideas and invest in them to ensure an ongoing, positive effect on the plastic value chain. 

While Hillenbrand is an equipment manufacturer, we play a key role in the plastics value chain. We need to think differently about plastic leakage and not see it as waste but start thinking of it as future feedstock. It has value, and in a world where PCR is hard to come by, we need to better understand how we collect this feedstock. The creation of this competition is just one small piece of the puzzle in helping us put this into action. 

Tory Flynn is chief sustainability officer and vice president of Corporate Affairs for Hillenbrand, based in Batesville, Indiana. 

For more information 

Hillenbrand, 812-931-5000, www.hillenbrand.com[email protected]  

About the Author

DeAnne Toto

DeAnne Toto is Editorial Director of the Recycling Today Media Group and can be reached at [email protected].