Principal Sustainable Materials Engineer, Michelle Legatt, visited students at Woodrow Wilson Middle School and Grant High School to speak about her career journey and coming to understand sustainability. Michelle started out as a research chemist and products developer at 3M before transitioning to a materials innovation engineer at Patagonia and, most recently, to her current role at Hasbro.
Student were provided the opportunity to ask questions, ranging from plastic alternative options to the practicality of small businesses being sustainable. Michelle responded to their questions to provide insight. See a sampling of the Q&A below!
How hard would it be to switch all the production of single-use plastics to the infinitely recyclable plastics?
There are so many moving parts to production. You would need to make sure you can scale up production of infinitely recyclable plastics. You would need to ensure that machines using that type of plastic will work with that consistency. Also, when recycling, you need to make sure it does not contaminate other types of plastic in the waste stream. It really depends on what the plastic is being used for as to whether infinitely recyclable plastic will actually work.
What is the best plastic alternative for things like packaging? I’ve heard corn can be an alternative and is biodegradable.
The best is really paper, as long as it is sustainably sourced and not made from old-growth forests. Biodegradable is also being used as a blanket term to include a variety of plastic alternatives. Marketing has also miscommunicated what these materials are and what they can do. Most [biodegradable alternatives] will take at least 5 years to break down and others will still break down into smaller parts that are harmful.
At what point in the breaking down process of plastic is it no longer harmful?
We do not know the answer to this. We do know that the smallest pieces, nano-plastics, can cross barriers such as cell membranes and enter into organs and cells. We do not yet know what this means for health of living things, humans included.
What are some of the benefits of working for a smaller business vs. a larger corporation when regarding sustainability and accessibility to resources?
Smaller businesses are more nimble or flexible. They usually have a clear common message and goal that all employees are there for. Larger companies may be more risk-adverse and have to answer to shareholders or be slower to make changes.