Plastics have become such an integral part of our daily life that we don’t think twice about using them in a myriad of applications. However, the improper disposal of plastic waste at its end of life threatens to change the narrative around the use of these materials. 

Timothy Ponrathnam, our next pathbreaker, Packaging Scientist at Berry Global, works on material science technologies that can incorporate a higher proportion of recycled plastics in packaging while ensuring that the products continue to meet the existing physical, functional and safety requirements.

Tim talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his work on a project related to investigation of sustainable plastic packaging as an alternative to conventional polymer films for packaging coffee that led him to a career in sustainable materials.

For students, the plastics packaging industry is undergoing unprecedented change with a push towards sustainability. Be a part of this transformation !

Tim, what can you tell us about yourself?

I was born and raised in Pune. My parents were central government employees who had returned to settle in India after studying in the US. 

My father is a Polymer Chemist and my mother is a Computer Engineer by training who worked as a Systems Architect for an Astrophysics lab located in the Pune University Campus.

Growing up, the best advice I got from my parents was – “if you find your passion, it will never feel like ‘work’ “. Taking my parents advice to heart, I thought I should study something related to chemical sciences – Chemistry or Chemical Engineering. After learning that most chemists eventually work in the field of Polymer Science, I decided to study Polymer Science and Engineering at the Maharashtra Institute of Technology – a college affiliated with the University of Pune.  

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

While doing my undergrad at Pune, I was able to learn about the Plastics Engineering program at University of Massachusetts, Lowell in the US. This program was the first of its kind in the world and its alumni had left an indelible mark on the Global Plastics Industry. Studying abroad was daunting, especially from the financial standpoint. Thankfully, I was fortunate enough to be offered a Graduate Assistantship as part of my acceptance into the program that would waive my tuition costs completely and also gave me a small stipend that would cover my living expenses.

PhD students can typically get department funding as part of the admission to the program. It is part of the pre requisite training to teach undergraduate American students in labs and grade classes. Selections for the scholarship are based on merit of the application and the number of available scholarships. Thankfully, I met the selection criteria, primarily due to my experience on undergrad projects, my grades and academic results.  

What were the influencing factors that led you on this career path?

At the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, I was able to join Prof Ram Nagarajan’s research group. Prof Nagarajan is an international expert in biobased/ sustainable polymers and polymers for sensing applications. Under his guidance I was able to graduate with my doctorate in plastics engineering.

Prof Nagarajan encouraged his students to participate in both internal and external national student competitions. Under his mentorship I was able to participate as one of the co-leads on a project that investigated sustainable plastic packaging as an alternative to conventional polymer films for packaging coffee. We submitted our proposal to the EPA P3 Program (EPA’s P3 – People, Prosperity and the Planet – Program is a unique competition that is open to teams of college/university students working to design solutions for a sustainable future.) and our idea was awarded with a grant of 15,000 to develop our proposed solution. This competition was my first foray into the field of plastic packaging. 

Can you tell us about the career path you took that brought you here?

I wouldn’t call this a career path.. But here’s my academic pathway. 

At University of Massachusetts Lowell, students enroll in an interdisciplinary program offered jointly by the chemistry department and the plastics engineering department. Polymer Science courses are offered by the department of chemistry, whereas the engineering courses are offered by the plastics engineering department. By the time I was in the middle of the program, I realized that I had completed enough course credits to technically meet the credit requirements for masters in chemistry. Hence, in addition to my primary degree, I was also able to get a masters in chemistry.  

What was the problem statement of your PhD and your work? 

My PhD work was related to the development of special polymer coatings that were used as molecular sponges to enhance the sensitivity of sensors for detecting chemicals such as explosive precursors and environmental contaminants such as heavy metals. 

The main training I got in my PhD is problem solving skills. You are quickly taught to learn what relevant questions to ask in order to learn and gain expertise in a closely related area or topic. 

When the opportunity to participate in the EPA student competition arose, we were able to apply learnings and principles from other coating projects in order to solve the problem.

Biobased polymers have inherent deficiencies in packaging due to their poor barrier properties, especially to moisture and oxygen, which is critical for food preservation. We were able to identify and successfully coat other biopolymers into this structure to overcome those shortcomings and provide a necessary sustainable barrier packaging solution for coffee beans. 

This was a side project that ultimately introduced me to the area that I work in today, and my industrial career at Berry. 

How did you get your first break?

As graduation got closer, I applied to several companies in my field. I was offered a position as a Material Scientist in the Consumer Packaging Business Unit at Berry Global, Inc (Berry). Berry is one of the largest plastic packaging companies in the world, meeting the packaging needs of the world’s leading consumer brands.  

What were the challenges you faced in your career? How did you address them?

At work, you interact with not just technical folks, but non-technical colleagues in management, marketing etc. Initially I struggled with communicating to non-technical people within my company. 

In order improve my non-technical communication, I joined toastmasters. Through toastmasters, I was able to improve my communication and leadership style. I learnt communication strategies to effectively pack ideas into a clear format. I am now able to break down complex technical ideas into simple terms that people can relate to and ultimately understand and follow. 

Tell us about your current role at Berry

At Berry Global, I have been able to further develop my passion for polymer science and sustainability. Together with our team, I have been involved in several projects focused on sustainability by reducing plastic package weight without sacrificing product performance. The solutions we have developed have successfully let us reduce product weight while improving barrier properties of bottles, which are critical for extending the shelf life of products stored in our bottles. 

What problems do you solve?

The plastics industry as a whole is in a moment of seminal change. Plastics require less energy and lesser natural resources to manufacture as compared to alternative materials like metal, glass and paper. However, the improper disposal of plastic waste at its end of life threatens to change the narrative around the use of these materials. 

Nobody likes seeing plastic waste as litter in the environment. As a scientist my focus is now on enhancing the sustainability of plastic packaging by incorporating more recycled plastics in our products. Using recycled plastics have significant benefits in further reducing the carbon footprint of our products. However, recycled plastics suffer due to the inherent deficiencies in the material properties. In my current role, I work on developing material science technologies that can allow us to incorporate a higher proportion of recycled plastics in our products while ensuring that the products continue to meet our existing physical, functional and safety requirements. Introducing more recycled plastics into our products will help incentivize investments in recycling which will allow us to prevent plastics from entering into the physical environment in the first place. 

How does your research work benefit society?

I am working at a time of unprecedented change in the plastics industry. In the near future I anticipate that most of the products we make will use some amount of recycled materials. An average person probably touches at least 20 different Berry products in a given day. Some of the recent product launches we have include the following- 

Berry manufactures plastic products for packaging, filtration and protective solution markets.

In terms of packaging, we make everything from plastic bottles, cups, caps, containers and lids that are used in a variety of markets that include food, personal care and health care applications. Our customers include the major CPG companies who use our products as packaging to store their products and selling directly to end consumers. 

We also make non woven polymer fibers, that go into filtration media for N95 masks along with PPE for first responders and health care professionals. In the e-commerce space, we make mailer film that has primarily replaced boxes for some ecommerce applications. 

It makes me proud to work in a field that helps make people’s life better and safer. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

In India, the education system focuses primarily on just imparting students knowledge in a subject area. I think in the United States, the application of the knowledge to solve real world problems is the focus of the education system. 

Success therefore comes not just by knowing an area well, but also being able to apply your knowledge to a task and ultimately communicate it well to others. I think developing soft skills is probably as important to success in your career as anything you will learn in the class room. 

Unfortunately, my recollection of the traditional education model in India does not focus on developing your soft skills at all. Being able to work well with others is critically important to your success in your career as most places will require you to work in project groups. 

Do not be afraid to ask for help if you need it. 

Also, try to develop a group of mentors. Atleast early on your career, having a mentor will help you avoid unnecessary mistakes as you tackle challenges in your chosen career field.