Innovation Spotlight: Scott’s Use of Science to Make the World a Better Place

Not all superheroes wear capes.  

At its core, this common phrase speaks to our human ability to do extraordinary things.  Even within our limited capabilities, human actions can transcend time and unite humanity. Human superheroes have a knack for assessing opportunities—both large and small—and leveraging the tools at hand to make a difference in the world.  

At Milliken, we strive to have a positive impact on our world for generations to come. Our innovations illustrate how, through meaningful design, we can help solve everyday challenges.  

Our exceptional associates are the driving force behind those impacts. For Scott Trenor, a senior polymer scientist in Milliken’s chemical division, a belief in Milliken’s purpose motivates him to discover new ways to address the plastics end-of-life challenge. Scott’s personal mission? To leave the world better than he found it.  

We took a moment with our very own, in-house superhero to learn more about his work:  

Tell us about your role as a Polymer Scientist.
Polymer science is a diverse field. It includes people who focus on the chemistry of making new polymers or plastics to those who design containers and parts to meet target properties and specific applications—think, a car bumper, soda bottle or socket for a hip replacement. My expertise tends to fall somewhere in the middle, as I design and test materials to meet the requirements of the specific application. This may require chemists creating new materials, blending multiple materials that currently exist on the market, or manipulating the polymer’s properties with additives or special processes. 

What does it mean to see your work positively impact the world for generations to come?
I think everyone wants to save the world in some way—whether it’s Batman, my four-year-old son’s vision of a superhero, or the engineers who design safer cars. For me, the space where I choose to work is to select and design solutions that reduce our burden on the planet’s natural resources. It’s a broad-reaching area that can lead to reduced energy use and CO2 emissions, which help to combat climate change; increasing the shelf life of food to help us feed a growing population; or reducing the use of water and other resources necessary to grow, harvest, and deliver food to us.  

We at Milliken can play a significant role in positively impacting the world for future generations. At the end of the day, I want to leave the world a better place, and not make my son’s generation and future generations clean up our messes.  

What role does chemistry/science play in creating “better” plastics?
There’s a big push to design better plastics, but I believe the ones we have are already good enough. For me, “better” means what we do with the plastics that we have after we’re done with them. I feel that the problems we’re seeing today could be solved by reusing or repurposing what we’ve already made. Once a plastic article finishes its usable function, it typically needs some ‘help’ getting back to the performance it had when it was first made. For PET, scientists and chemists developed a process called solid stating, which mostly returns the polymer to its ‘freshly made’ state. For the other commodity materials, namely polyethylene and polypropylene, a similar process doesn’t exist. This is where science and engineering can play an important role.     

How does the circular economy influence your work? 
I think influence is too subtle a description. It drives my work. Helping increase the circularity of plastics by keeping those raw materials in use can significantly reduce the negative impact mismanagement is having on our environment. For instance, recycling a polypropylene container into another container uses roughly 90% less energy, 50% less water, and reduces CO2 emissions by 75% compared to using virgin polypropylene. Polyethylene and PET have similar savings. Recycling locally will also go a long way to reduce the problem of packaging making its way into the world’s waterways and oceans. With continued population growth, we will need more and more material to serve the larger populations. It makes sense to increase the reuse of material we’ve already produced—whether it be plastics, glass, aluminum, or paper. 

Describe Milliken’s relationship with PureCycle Technologies. What is the overarching goal?
We were one of the first handful of companies outside of P&G that learned about the process being developed. John Layman, the inventor of the technology at P&G, and I worked for the same Ph.D. advisor in graduate school. We interacted occasionally over the years and as he was developing the technology, we had dinner at an Association of Plastics Recyclers meeting. We discussed some of the shortcomings of a polypropylene resin he was studying, and I suggested some potential approaches on how to overcome those deficiencies based on Milliken’s product line and some ideas of future products.   

Once PureCycle began to build their pilot plant and were planning their product offering, John and his team reached out again and asked us to develop an additive package to improve the material they were producing. From that starting point, our relationship grew into the strategic partnership we currently have with them.  

At the end of the day, we hope to improve on the circularity of polypropylene (PP). They have lofty plans to build 25 plants over the next 15 years to produce nearly four billion pounds of purified post-consumer PP per year, and we will do everything we can to help them and their customers meet their targets.  

What motivates you?
I get the argument that someone driving a car has a worse effect on the environment than not recycling, but we need to take advantage of the opportunities that we currently have to improve where we can. There are lots of opinions between ‘ban all plastics’ and ‘plastic is the greatest material ever invented;’ the truth is somewhere in the middle. I’d like to bring groups together and educate across governments, NGOs, communities, and consumers to work together to leave this world a better place for my son and future generations.