Beyond Benign was introduced to the amazing Dr. Love-Ese Chile, who runs two businesses – Grey to Green Sustainable Solutions and Regenerative Waste Labs. We took the opportunity to interview Dr. Chile on her experience in green chemistry and invention. She shared with us her upcoming workshops, her inspiration and how she loves to spark the imagination of the future that can be possible through chemistry.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Thanks for speaking with us today, please share with us a little about yourself.
Hi everyone, my name is Dr. Love-Ese Chile. I am a sustainable plastics researcher – one of the many types of research I do these days. A bit about my background – my family is from Nigeria, I was born in Australia, grew up in New Zealand and now I am living in Canada. So, I’m definitely a global human.
I moved to Canada to study at the University of British Columbia, where I did a PhD in Chemistry with a sprinkle of Chemical Engineering. I was making and studying biodegradable plastics, PLA and lignin. In the chemistry department I made catalysts, monomers and polymers and then I would take my polymers to the engineering department where I would study their rheological properties – how they flow. I graduated in 2017 and started my first company in 2018 and my second in 2020 and that leads me to where I am today.
Based on your vast experience, what do you believe is one of our society’s greatest challenges in sustainability today?
Personally, I feel like the biggest challenge is (the need for) a cultural shift around the way our society engages with the products and materials we use every day. All our issues have stemmed from our unsustainable extraction, production and consumption processes to the point that we have now polluted a lot of our environment – be it CO2, plastics or waste. So, if we can change the way we, as a society, engage with products and materials that will stop the flow of pollutants into the environment, then we can start to do the work to clean up the environment. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to do one and then the other. We must do things simultaneously and that is where the challenge lies. I envision it as trying to put on your socks while you are trying to take your off pants – trying to do two things at once is very challenging.
What inspired you to work sustainable sciences?
Great question. I was inspired by a lot of different things. I’ve always been a type of person that is passionate about sustainability. When I was younger, I remember watching the TV show “Captain Planet”. It was about a group of young people going around trying to save the world from peddlers of pollution and other ecological problems. I very much caught the green bug early on, through the rampant education that was happening. I’m sure young people today are still feeling that passion for the environment with a sense of even more urgency than 20 years ago.
I’ve always been a young scientist, looking at the world around me and trying to think critically about all the strange things that I saw. The first thing I remember is when plastic water bottles was becoming a big thing. I thought it was strange – why spend $2 for a bottle of water when it is just tap water from a factory no different from the water out of a tap at home, even worse maybe because there were fewer regulations for this water… but everyone seemed to be fine with that. I thought that was weird. I saw many people willingly accept things and ignoring these big problems.
Then there was the big BP oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico. It went on for weeks and an insane amount of oil went into the ocean. To “clean up the spill” they to put the surfactants into it and said “ok, the oil is gone, its fine now”. But being a young scientist and knowing what surfactants are, I knew it wasn’t really gone. It was just water soluble, so it was still there just in a biologically available form, which will still have implications down the road. That was a very frustrating situation where it seemed that they weren’t doing enough to clean up the mess, and no one was holding the company accountable. I wanted to do something that would affect some sort of change in the way these types of problems are “solved”.
What inspired you to start your own business?
I didn’t want to wait anymore to affect the change that I was looking for. I’m a trained scientist who didn’t have a business background, but I decided I’ll just do it and figure things out. Though I certainly didn’t do it alone. I am supported by my life partners in a way that allows me to take this risk and follow my dream in pursuing this idea that I have. I also connected with my business partners and mentors who believed in me and my ideas. They are guiding me through the ins and outs of building a business. I’m passionate about this, and even if this business fails or this iteration of my idea doesn’t work, there will still be opportunities to use the experiences I’ve had to continue to affect the change I would like to see.
My work focuses on waste management. I am a big proponent of bio-based materials, but I don’t believe switching from one material to another is going to solve our problems. It is about how we are implementing those products into the marketplace and into society. We must do this more consciously to make sure we don’t create different problems than the ones we are trying to solve. This is where my work is focused on – trying to understand how these materials breakdown, what are their end of life or waste management options and how we can add value to the materials at the end of life. I want to support and advocate for people to be more conscious about where products are going, during the design and development phase. There must be more forethought into the entire process.
Can you tell us a bit more about any upcoming projects that you are working on?
In 2020, I started Regenerative Waste Labs focusing on how we can support clean production and sustainable consumption. We want to support businesses and consumers to transition to bio-based materials where it makes the most sense. I am leading a “Think Again” workshop series that targets businesses who want to start to transition into using, procuring and managing sustainable products and packaging. We want to tell them a about the supply chain and the different considerations that need to be thought of if you want to put different materials into the marketplace.
The first workshop is focused on what is a sustainable supply chain, what are all the roles and responsibilities of the different actors of the supply chain. The second workshop is about how do you decide what material to use be it recyclable, compostable, reuse or other types of end-of-life systems, the importance for openness and transparency throughout the supply chain and ways to decipher information on biodegradation. The final workshop in that series is about waste management and customer communication. How do you design your waste management strategy and how do you relay that to your customers to ensure that that product ends up where it is supposed to be and not in the landfill?
Based on your experience, how do you see green chemistry and invention playing a role in our sustainable future?
I personally see green chemistry as playing a central role in the future of the world because chemistry is a central science; everything else stems from chemistry. Chemistry and biochemistry touch every innovation and so if we can instill green and sustainable principles in the base foundation then the principles are instilled in everything that grows upon that. It is so important for people who do the primary research to do it in the way that is conscious, equitable, ethical as well as sustainable in the long term. If those people promote those values, everything that comes after that will be promoting those values as well.
Do you remember when you first started feeling passionate about sustainability?
I was eight or nine. I was an avid reader as a young person. I wanted to learn about everything, and I thought science was so exciting. The first science I was passionate about was astronomy – looking at the stars I thought ‘these burning hot balls of gas millions of away, that is cool’. Scientists seemed like modern-day magicians – playing around with atoms and making something out of nothing.
But now what I find to be most exciting is communicating science to people. A couple of summers ago, I was part of a sustainable science summer camp for kids. We did an activity where we enclosed a system with CO2 inside of it, and when it heated up it was visible for the kids to see. We showed students how to make sustainable paints and biodiesel and other cool things, it really sparked their imagination. As I move forward in my career, I wanted to be able to spark the same sort of imagination for people. Ever since I was a young person, I wanted to do “this” in one form or another.
Have you had a mentor, or educator that was particularly inspirational whom helped to influence your career choices?
I have always thought of my father as my biggest mentor and fan. Both my parents really, but my mom isn’t as science-inclined as my dad. He is a university professor in New Zealand in public policy. He was always giving me math books and encyclopedias to read and teaching me to do things on my own. Even when I moved away from academia and into the crazy world of starting my own business, he has always been 100% behind me. And even still, as I make my way, he is always there giving me a helping hand and work through new ideas with me.
Knowing what you know now, are there skills that you would recommend to a student pursuing training in that you wish you had upon entering an industrial career?
It’s mostly the soft skills you need when you engage with people in the “real world”. The one soft skill that is key is communication. It is important to be able to talk about your work to different people from different backgrounds but also to be able to inspire their imagination as well. You can get into the nitty gritty technical stuff, but if you are able inspire and capture their imagination, you able to communicate the importance of what you are doing while maintaining their attention.
Other important skills are resilience and perseverance. You learn more from the failures then you do from the successes. While it is easy to get bogged down in the bad stuff, realize that it isn’t specifically about you – the science, the universe, just isn’t aligning – you just have to take a step back, see the big picture and figure out how to continue to move forward. It is challenging to get to that point, but it just takes practice. Also having a network of supporters around you, being able to see the positive in bad situations, and being able to communicate when you need help or inspire people to support you are all important. Also, teamwork is another big one. You are going to encounter a variety of human beings, and not all will align with you, but try to connect on a individual level with people so you can all work together.
Have you noticed challenges within your own work/life balance that might be unique to women of color in professional careers? How have you addressed these challenges?
As the world is changing to try to be more equitable, inclusive and diverse, people of color are often called to be that one voice in the room in a lot of committees. People of color, and women especially, are often, asked to do a lot of unpaid work, which isn’t necessarily reflected in the metrics that will advance their career. This can be challenging. While you want to be that voice and support the development and the continuation of these conversations, it can be a lot – both emotionally and intellectually – to have to always be that person in the room. Also, not all people of color are painted the same. Everyone has their experiences and trying to speak for everyone is also a challenge. These are things that may impact people of color, and women of color, more than other communities.
For myself, one of the hardest things I find to do create boundaries. So, I allot how much time each month or year I can put towards mentorship and committee work. Sometimes that can be hard because when you put a boundary up there is a lot of internal guilt and potentially external pressure you deal with. It is important to be able to wade through those emotions and look inwards to what your capacity is and what aligns with your personal goals. You should make sure that everything you do is helping you grow and building you up. It is a hard place to get to, but everything takes practice, I guess.
What advice would you give to a young woman of color today navigating a career in green chemistry and sustainability?
Persistence. Don’t give up. Even in the face of negativity with people saying you can’t do it, just continue to look inwards for strength. People will say you can’t do something, if you think you can do it and you want to do it, then continue doing that thing until there is some roadblock that you believe you can’t overcome. Maybe instead of going over it, you can sidestep it into something else. Continue to keep your own values in the forefront of your mind. If you are trying to make a change in the world, there will be a lot of neigh-sayers, even if you are not a woman of color. Keep going down the pathway until you, yourself, believe you need to change the direction. To combat those neigh-sayers, find those mentors and support network of people to help you keep perspective on what could be possible.