I Was Told To ‘Get Into Plastics,’ So I Did

Scott Steele, the new president of Plastic Technologies, talks the birth of rPET, patents, the future of plastics and how he just might owe his career to Dustin Hoffman.

In late January, Holland, Ohio-based Plastic Technologies (PTI) appointed Scott Steele as president of the company that specializes in package development and design, rapid prototyping, and material evaluation engineering. Steele joined PTI in 1987 as one of the company’s first employees. 

Steele began his career at Owens-Illinois as a member of the team that developed and commercialized the world’s first successful polyester (PET) carbonated soft drink container.

He has served in numerous positions within The Society of Plastic Engineers and is the past chairman of the Blow Molding Division board.

As the author of 11 U.S. and international patents, he is recognized internationally as an expert in blow molding technology for plastic packaging applications.

In the latest installment of the PD&D Fireside Chat series, Steele took some time out of his busy schedule to talk blow-molding technology, patents, and how Dustin Hoffman inspired his career in plastics.


PD&D: How did you get your start in the industry?

Scott Steele, President, Plastic Technologies: I was hired as an engineering intern by Owens-Illinois when the 2L PET beverage bottles were just getting into production in the late 1970s. I originally tried to work for the glass side of the business, but my college engineering professor gave me the advice that was given to Dustin Hoffman in the classic movie The Graduate, to get into “plastics.” I listened to that advice and have never regretted the decision.

PD&D: Since you have 17 years of experience as vice president with the company, what is your immediate plan of action as the new president of PTI?

Steele: PTI is a great brand with a great set of customers. I was part of building the business model which has led to our success, so we know it works. However, like any business, change is inevitable and it is happening faster than ever. I see my new role as one that leads the company to find the new opportunities that change creates.

PD&D: For which blow molding technology “firsts” are you accredited?

Steele: We don’t talk a lot about our customer projects, because everything we do for them is confidential. However, I can say that I designed the heating system and the process for the first reheat stretch injection blow molder for polypropylene. It was exciting to see totally transparent oriented polypropylene for the first time. 

I have worked on many successful packages during the span of my career, but feel particularly proud of the work we did to launch the first shaped PET carbonated beverage containers.

PD&D: What was the most interesting project that ever crossed your desk?

Steele: I have been fortunate to have been a part of recycling post-consumer PET (rPET) back into bottles from the very beginning. The first thing we tried was a separation method called sink float. The bottles, which blended rPET with virgin PET, had limited opacity and almost looked dirty. However, the mechanical properties were good and that gave us the confidence to work on the appearance issues.

To see all of the advances in cleaning and purification since those early days has been very satisfying. The end result is that we can now provide food contact rPET with a material that looks great and performs well.

PD&D: What does the future hold for plastic packaging? What are clients demanding that has thus far been unattainable?

Steele: I think sustainable packaging goals are going to drive more conversions to plastic from other materials. Plastic really does have a great environmental profile. However, the industry has to do a better job of communicating those benefits.

PD&D: As the author of 11 U.S. and international patents, you’ve clearly developed the great patience such a process requires. Do you have any tips for design engineers currently caught up in the patent application process?

Steele: Patenting requires a good deal of creativity beyond the actual invention. You need to think about the best way to describe your idea, but you also must look ahead to see how the product is going to be used. It takes some time to learn how to work with the patent attorney to maximize your potential for success.

PD&D: What does the future hold for biopolymers in the plastic packaging industry?

Steele: Biopolymers are here to stay. Those involved in plastic packaging have always embraced new materials; however bio-based materials will not be given a free ride. They must perform at the same level as existing materials, at a similar price point. 

This is a very challenging time to find the right opportunities for biopolymers, but we certainly have seen some success and we know that it will continue. Today, nature creates the required carbon bonds we use every day, but we have not figured out a way to use these alternative materials in packaging successfully. I believe we will find ways to harness nature to make even better bio-based materials in the future.

PD&D: From a state of the industry perspective, what keeps you up at night?

Steele: Technology and brand owner requirements are in a constant state of flux — whether it is materials, processing, regulatory, consumer needs, etc. Our challenge is to continuously monitor the various aspects that impact packaging so that we can provide the greatest possible value to our customers.

My goal is to demonstrate that PTI can help the broader packaging market by using its core competencies to impact more materials and processes.

To learn more about PTI, check out http://www.plastictechnologies.com.

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