Avery Dennison Label and Packaging Materials / Flor Peña Herron wins Plastics Recycling Ambassador Award

Flor Pena Herron wins Plastics Recycling Ambassador Award

Flor Peña Herron wins Plastics Recycling Ambassador Award

In the wake of her win at the Plastics Recycling Awards Europe 2021 we spoke to Flor Peña Herron, sustainability & circular economy manager, Avery Dennison Label and Packaging Materials EMEA) about the key milestones through her career, her impact on the industry and her view on what the future of sustainability holds.

Q1. You studied environmental science at a time that sustainability wasn’t the pressing issue it is today. What sparked your interest in the subject?

I took the environmental science route because it combines the two specialities of ecology and microbiology with a view to restoring the environment. And why? Because I come from a very small village in Spain, from a family of farmers - specifically we grow olive and cherry trees. 

While we all now talk about circular economies, for me the best example of circularity is nature. Nature is perfectly circular. I was always interested in biochemistry, architecture and design but I felt that to connect that to the ecosystem and the environment would allow me to work towards improving quality of life. From how to clean water, to how to improve infrastructure and make city designs more sustainable, improving airflow and so on. When you then layer this with an understanding of legislation, and an understanding of economic and social factors, you have a really holistic view of sustainability.

Q2. You began your career in the early 00s and moved from the consulting space into the manufacturing industry. What advice would you give to young women starting out in the industry today?

My advice would be to never give up on your goals. You also have to accept that early on you will probably end up accepting jobs that don’t necessarily fit within the dream but sometimes you need to create a route to the start of the path you want to follow. Don’t feel the need to get on that path in the very first step. It’s not realistic. Besides, you gain a lot of knowledge by doing something different early on that you can later draw from. 

One of the things I draw from often is my knowledge of the production side, and the understanding of the customers’ needs. So don’t focus on being a sustainability leader from the beginning, focus on building a well rounded set of skills so that when you do come to that leadership role, you’re really ready for it. But always keep your end goal in mind and above all, be resilient. 

Q3. You were just named Plastics Recycling Ambassador 2021. You were praised for setting the course for converters, label producers, the packaging industry and the whole value chain. Was this driven by a specific project or was the recognition across the board?

Both. I started with this association 3 years ago because I recognized that if you only look at yourself and you're unaware of what’s happening beyond your company, and you don’t know the industry ecosystem, it’s really difficult to be on top of your game and be truly knowledgeable. 

You need a full picture to solve problems. At the same time I realised we needed to be proactive. So I introduced the concept of Eco-design in order to look at the complete ecosystem from an external perspective, and from an internal perspective, establish a working practice that took the whole lifespan of a product into consideration. For example, we may make a completely recyclable label, but the brand owner combines it with an incompatible package that renders the whole thing unrecyclable. So we need to work with the end product in mind from the outset to ensure a sustainable end result. This is also the philosophy that I brought to the association. 

Q4. What is the main challenge you face in your role today?

Externally it’s that everyone is somewhat protective - they need to learn to work as a team, and behave more collaboratively for the benefit of the whole supply chain, not just their part of it.  We need to act as a community, not a silo. That means being more flexible across the board. And internally I encounter the problem of our scale. Avery Dennison in its entirety is huge. But when you break it down, our sway within the packaging industry is not enough to generate the required industry change and at the end of the supply chain, our influence is somewhat smaller. And that’s exactly why we need to develop a more collective and collaborative mindset. Being a leader and having the knowledge is critical to our contribution.

Q5. Are we sitting on the cusp of any innovation that you think can shift the tide on our efforts towards regeneration?

Human behaviour and our consumption is where the real problem sits. So rather than some kind of innovation of product or process, I’d like to see innovation in thinking. We need to educate people to help them understand the science rather than putting our focus on short term changes that make us feel good but offer no real long term benefit.

Poor decision making stems from a lack of education. What we hear on the news is often misleading and a result of the zeitgeist over facts. Don’t get me wrong, it’s terrible to see the ocean full of plastic but is it the fault of the plastic, or the people? Banning materials just moves the problem, it doesn’t solve it. For example, in some cases, plastic can contribute to sustainability - it reduces food waste as well as being a waste product itself. Paper is more sustainable - sometimes. Glass is more sustainable - sometimes. No one material is consistently the most sustainable choice. We need to match materials to the situation rather than simply putting all our focus on one.

Q6. Following the compromises made at Cop26, what can the industry do to move the needle regardless of government commitments?

Companies can act independently and not simply react to legislation; climate change is already here and we need to act. We can set our own bold goals for progress, begin working on the steps we can take today and engage with our stakeholders along the value chain. 

With regards to COP26, industrialized nations have spent many decades causing the problem, and now developing countries are being asked to contribute to the solution. But we have learnt many lessons along the route of industrialisation. We can share our knowledge and expertise with developing nations so that they too can enjoy progress; in turn, all countries need to be open to progressing in a sustainable way. 


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