Leaders must strike the right balance between their own needs and the needs of others....
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The world will only be able to continue enjoying the benefits of plastics if the industry tackles the huge problem of plastic waste as part of its drive to become carbon neutral by 2050, says Lucrèce Foufopoulos, Executive Vice President Polyolefins and Innovation & Technology at plastics group Borealis. She urges talented young people to join the plastics industry to help tackle its environmental challenges.
“To preserve the future of the industry, we have to take care of the waste problem and transition the system to a net-zero future. Then we will be able to continue enjoying the benefits of plastics in a responsible way,” Foufopoulos said in an interview.
Some 24.5 million tonnes of plastic waste was generated in Europe in 2020, and the bulk of this was incinerated, sent to landfill, exported or ended up littering the environment and oceans. The production and disposal of plastics also account for significant greenhouse gas emissions.
For Foufopoulos, the way forward is clear. Industry body Plastics Europe, of which she is a board member, has just published a report outlining potential pathways to tackle the waste and emissions problems. It concludes that the key solution to the plastic waste problem is a massive increase in recycling. “It became very clear out of that study that the only way we will be able to enjoy the benefits of plastics is if we transition the entire system towards a net-zero future and one of the key pathways to get there is by recycling faster,” she said.
In Europe, only 14% of plastic waste is recycled currently and this figure needs to increase massively, she said. “That calls for technology, that calls for investment, that calls for changes in the organization of waste collection.”
Redesigning products for recycling and the development of reusable products also have important roles to play in the circular model that the industry needs to adopt. The Borealis Group is intensifying its commitment to a net zero future by aiming to expand its volume of sustainable plastics on the market to 18 times current levels by 2030, so that by then 40% of its European production will be sustainable plastic.
To achieve these goals, the industry needs to attract talented people, so Foufopoulos urges young people to come on board and help tackle its sustainability problems. “I invite young talents to join the plastics industry. We need the brightest and most creative people to help us ‘reinvent for more sustainable living’ to transform the whole system to a more sustainable future. Rather than sit on the sidelines and criticize, join us and help us create a net positive future,” she said. “If you want to write a legacy and want to have a positive and lasting impact on the planet, this is the way to do it, so that would be my pitch to young engineers looking for an exciting career.”
Foufopoulos said plastics offered many advantages – being light, mechanically strong, flexible and versatile – and so were useful for a huge range of products. She cited a number of favorite items in her own home, from the plastic bins essential for the efficient separation of waste to the kitchen robot, which has a particular appeal because of her background as an engineer and chemist.
Importantly, the plastics sector can also be a key enabler helping other industries in their drive towards net zero. The automotive industry will need lighter cars to offset the increased weight associated with electric batteries, for example. And plastics manufacturers have developed unique polymers that enable society’s conversion to renewable power, such as in solar and wind energy. Plastics are used in wire and cable applications, which enable energy transmission over long distances, for instance from offshore windfarms to where we live. Plastics can also help deliver emission savings in sectors such as construction, packaging and medical.
“Plastic is both an icon of prosperity and a cautionary example of how linear models of consumption can undermine the Earth’s limits,” said Foufopoulos. “I profoundly believe in the future of plastics, but there is urgency for the plastics system to ambitiously implement circularity principles across the value chain, define and commit to a credible path to net zero Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, and to continue intensifying efforts to eliminate plastic pollution in the environment.
“This is the systemic change required, and my dream is to turn Borealis into a poster child of circularity. That would be the most beautiful thing my team and I could leave to the next generation.” Borealis is already taking considerable steps towards a more sustainable future for plastics. It is gradually shifting from fossil-based feedstocks to alternative carbon sources such as biomass or mixed waste streams. Alternative waste and residue streams, such as used cooking oil instead of traditional fossil fuel feedstocks, are being used to develop plastics marketed under its Bornewables™ brand. The company is also making major efforts to revalorize and recycle mixed plastic waste streams, including chemical recycling of waste that is not suitable for mechanical recycling. Borealis was one of the first plastics producers to invest in recycling assets, acquiring German plastic recycler mtm plastics in 2016 and Austrian plastics recycler Ecoplast in 2018. The company is also working with Swiss sports brand On to convert carbon emissions into a primary raw material for a shoe bottom unit, specifically EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) foam, for its running shoes.
Foufopoulos said the adaptability shown by many companies during the COVID-19 pandemic was a source of great optimism about the capacity of organizations to tackle new challenges, such as the waste problem facing the plastics industry.
“We found that we could do a lot of things in very different ways and I was excited to see the amount of quite transformative work we managed to do despite the constraints of the pandemic. That totally changed my mind about the resourcefulness of organizations when they are suddenly confronted with a big challenge like that. This reconfirms my profound believe that the ingenuity of human beings is endless when the context is right,” she said. “This brings me back to the environmental challenge we are facing, the plastic waste problem and the need to transform our industry. I know that when the going gets tough and people are confronted with big challenges, the ingenuity of the human brain is powerful and many things become possible.”
Foufopoulos’s dual responsibility for Borealis’s polyolefins business on the one hand and innovation and technology on the other, means that she is ideally positioned to understand the need for companies to focus both on the exploitation of their existing core business and exploration for future opportunities. She believes the two roles go hand-in-hand and are instrumental for successful transformations.
“For the established plastics business, like for many dinosaurs these days, we need to reinvent ourselves. Established companies are being challenged by unicorns and disruptors everywhere and for those that want to survive and be fit for the future, the only way to do that is by combining exploitation and exploration. Being able to do that successfully is what can enable an established company to remain a successful company for many decades to come,” she said.
“If we want to stay relevant and be successful, we need to massively transform our offering and that comes on the one hand from managing the core business competitively and at the same time through reinvention, redesigning our future offering, revisiting our business models, and transforming gradually towards a new company and a new offering that is more fit for the future.”
She said Borealis could take inspiration from other “phoenixes” – established companies that have succeeded in reinventing themselves in the face of external challenges, such as Orsted or Walmart for example, which has managed to thrive despite disruption from the growth of Amazon.
Foufopoulos joined Borealis in January 2019 after a varied career of more than 20 years in the chemical and petrochemical industry. She previously served at Eastman Chemical, initially as Corporate Vice President Marketing and Sales, leading a company-wide commercial transformation, and then as Vice President and General Manager of one of the firm’s business units. Before Eastman Chemical, she held a range of senior positions at Dow Chemical, Rohm and Haas, Dow Corning and Tyco. In the past few years she has also joined the supervisory boards of tank storage company Vopak and specialty chemicals firm Sika.
A technical education involving two Master of Science degrees in Belgium led to a role at Tyco’s corporate headquarters in California followed by a move back to Brussels to set up a European team. She was then hired by Dow Corning, and it was during her 12 years with the company that she made the transition from technical roles to broader business leadership positions.
“I entered as an application development engineer and when I left I was confided a general manager position, so a lot happened in that time. Those were the years that were the most important in shaping my future and transitioning from my technical education to business leadership roles. I did business school programs, on-the-job learning and had mentors, sponsors and coaches, and I sometimes felt like I was being prepared like an athlete, but it allowed me to land my first small P&L position, which was with a paper and packaging business of about $300m.”
We need the brightest and most creative people to help us … rather than sit on the sidelines and criticize, join us and help create a net positive future- Lucrèce Foufopoulos
Foufopoulos said this taught her the benefits of taking risks and exploring new opportunities. “I would advise any young engineer to be brave and not shy away from embracing new opportunities and taking a calculated risk. There are enormous rewards for learning and expanding out of your comfort zone.”
She quoted Nelson Mandela, “I never lose. I either win or learn.” There is only an upside, as even if you fail you benefit from a valuable learning experience. This philosophy helped her get through two particular periods of uncertainty in her career. The first was when she moved from Dow Corning to Rohm and Haas in the middle of 2008, only to find that it was set to be taken is over by Dow. “People didn’t know whether they would survive the integration. There were rumors going around of layoffs of up to 25% of the workforce, and there I was, totally new in a new company being prepared for take-over. But I was quite determined to prove that I was there for a reason, and I remained focused on the job and the enormous learning opportunity I was presented. Today I look back with some pride and gratitude for the precious learnings I retained from this highly uncertain period during the economic crisis of 2008-2009.”
The second was when she joined Eastman Chemical in 2014, and wrongly assumed after having spent 18 years in the broader Dow Chemical group (including h-Dow Corning and h-Rohm and Haas) that the culture of Eastman Chemical would be similar to that of her previous employers. This was also her first experience in a functional leader role, as corporate head of sales and marketing, while not being based at the company’s corporate headquarters in Kingsport, Tennessee.
“I learned quickly about the importance of cultural sensitivity and in-depth understanding of a company’s formal and informal decision-making processes. I figured out that if I wanted to have impact, I’d better get on the plane and be where the decisions were being made.” This turned out to become another invaluable experience, which equipped her better to join for the first time a European company, the Borealis group, with an equally individual culture. Over the years, she has also benefited from having great mentors, role-models and talented colleagues and leaders.
“I am grateful for the invaluable learnings I drew from working with so many great and generous leaders and colleagues in prime multinationals. They helped me fill my rucksack, they allowed me to learn from their successes and failures, they accompanied and guided me through my own successes and failures, and they cared enough to give me feedback!”
She is also keen to encourage those starting out on a leadership career now to follow her example of seizing new opportunities and not just taking the obvious path. “I would encourage any young professional to invest in seeking out many experiences in the right places and not wait until opportunities are presented to you. Take chances, while doing proper due diligence, and follow your instincts, follow your passion and pursue your dreams. Be brave and dare to dream big,” she said.
No one is born with the expectation that they will eventually become an executive or CEO, but she said there were a number of qualities that could help people to succeed. “For me to suggest there is a manual would be foolish. Life unfolds in different ways, but you can give destiny a hand. There is no manual. There are however a few ingredients in the recipe that definitely pay off: courage, risk-taking, hard work, being curious and inquisitive, and constantly looking for opportunities to learn and adopt new ways of doing things. Those are the pieces of advice that I would give and which have so far worked quite well for me.”
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