Fulfilling a need

Features - Plastics Trailblazers

John Layman is the mastermind behind a technology that chemically recycles polypropylene, removing the material’s color and odor.

John Layman is the mastermind behind a technology that chemically recycles polypropylene (PP), removing color and odor and producing a recycled flake with virgin-like quality. Working in labs at Procter & Gamble’s (P&G’s) Cincinnati headquarters, he created the technology that is being commercialized by PureCycle Technologies at its plant in Hanging Rock, Ohio.

Layman has been in the plastics recycling industry for a decade. In that time, he says, despite all of the turbulence, one thing remains clear: “The need for plastics recycling is only going to increase.” Therefore, he says he sees “incredible opportunity” ahead. Layman says he’s also happy that plastics recycling is being embraced by consumers, retailers and consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies.

In its June 2018 announcement about investing in PureCycle Technologies, the New York-based investment firm Closed Loop Fund’s CEO Ron Gonen said its CPG partners want postconsumer recycled PP, “but we need technologies like PureCycle’s to ensure enough material is available at the specifications brands need. We anticipate significant market opportunity for PureCycle.”

What are your roots in the plastics recycling industry? I started working on sustainable packaging when I joined P&G in 2008. Over the past 10 years, I have been working to help P&G offer consumers more ways to consume responsibly. Specific to plastics recycling, I have worked on many projects to increase both the recyclability and the amount of recycled content in P&G’s packaging.

What was the initial thinking behind the development of this PP recycling technology? As the old saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” My job was (and remains) to increase the content of recycled plastics in P&G packaging. However, as I produced prototype packages using recycled plastics, the gray/black color, odor and contamination presented too many challenges and raised too many concerns. This realization caused me to focus on developing a technology that could remove the problematic color, odor and contamination. The idea for the PureCycle process came from my years of experience in synthetic polymer chemistry. The purification of polymers is a common step after synthesis. I applied these principles to solving the problem of removing colorants, odor and other contaminants from recycled plastics. It is also important to note that R&D leaders have really supported this development.

In what ways has this technology changed since its inception? Quite a bit. Technology development is rarely, if ever, a linear process. Like many new technologies, there has been a lot of trial and error, many head-scratching moments and countless hours at the whiteboard with very smart people. Fortunately, I have the privilege of working with an incredible network of approximately 6,500 R&D employees at P&G, many of whom have helped advance and shape this technology to become more efficient and produce better quality product. In addition, Innventure (the licensing partner commercializing P&G’s technology via PureCycle Technologies) has a great network of partners who have all contributed to the commercialization of the purification process.

Have equipment manufacturers moved fast enough to develop new technology to support recycling? I am constantly impressed by the ingenuity and creativity of equipment manufacturers. Plastics recycling presents many complex problems that are often specific to a feedstock or application. I do believe the equipment manufacturers have developed robust options considering the diversity of needs in the industry

What misperceptions about plastics recycling do you wish you could debunk? One misconception I hear frequently is that is impossible to make money in plastics recycling. I certainly agree it is a challenging endeavor, but with the right technology and a sound business model, I believe there is tremendous opportunity to do good while doing good business.

What lessons have you learned about the industry that have helped you throughout the years? I have learned the importance of building open, honest and trusting relationships with others. No one company or individual can survive on its own without a network of trusted partners and collaborators. At P&G and PureCycle, we embrace honesty as a key value.

How have you seen plastics recycling change over the years? I am excited to see that plastics recycling is now being fully embraced by consumers, retailers and CPG companies. More people and companies are focused on driving solutions that address the entire plastics life cycle.

What roles have you held over the years and in what ways have you contributed to the industry? My entire career has focused on how to leverage cutting-edge advancements in materials science to make irresistible products that delight consumers. As part of these efforts, I have worked on introducing plant-based plastics and recycled plastic into P&G products. As a member of P&G’s corporate R&D team, I have the privilege of working on products and packages across all P&G brands around the world.

What’s the biggest (professional) mistake you have made? I often find myself not taking action on ideas for fear of failure. I keep telling myself why an idea will not work or why it would be too expensive to commercialize. I have learned to take smart risks and not doubt myself with new ideas.

Who has served as your role model or mentor? I am inspired by entrepreneurs who take risks and are unafraid to fail. For example, I am inspired by the people of Space Exploration Technologies who land rockets standing up even though they were told it would never work. I am also inspired by companies like Innventure who are unafraid to scale transformational technologies. I also find inspiration by the many passionate people and organizations who are driving action to make positive changes for plastics recycling.