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Plastics and Sustainability

Thursday, September 21
Student Center Ballroom

Kicking off UH Energy’s 2023-2024 Critical Issues in Energy Symposium Series, a timely conversation took center stage as industry, academia and law took aim at laying out a roadmap toward a circular materials economy during “Plastics, Chemicals and Circularity: What’s Next?”

The panel, which included Aura Cuellar, executive vice president of growth and strategic projects at LanzaTech; Jill Martin, global sustainability fellow at Dow; and Scott Pasternak, associate and senior project manager at Burns & McDonnell, focused on several aspects of potential solutions for circularity, value chain considerations, emissions, investments, consumer demand and more. The trio discussed the importance of establishing a circular economy revolving around establishing proper infrastructure and processes to avoid an accumulation of plastic waste, citing the need for value chain engagement, consumer educations, access to facilities and the need for technologies to improve America’s waste management efficiency. Roadblocks as well as public policy implications were also examined.

“Plastics have their virtues, but their challenges as well,” said Tracy Hester, associate instructional professor and co-director of the Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Center at the UH Law Center, who moderated the discussion at the symposium. “They’re durable, they’re cheap and they persist. They have an enormous array of uses depending on the flexibility of the products made from them, but their durability and inertness has led to a situation where we see challenges on how to manage, reuse and recycle accumulated plastic material.”

Plastics Symposium Photo Gallery

Plastics Symposium YouTube Video


Jill Martin, Dow Chemical Company
Jill Martin is a global sustainability fellow at the Dow Chemical Company. For the past 25 years, she has served in both research and development and technical service and development in the performance plastics field. Jill is a member of the Michigan State University and California Polytechnic State University Packaging Advisory Boards and serves on the ISTA Global Advisory Board.

Jill received her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University and a Ph.D. in polymer engineering and science from Case Western Reserve University, where her research focused on structure/property relationships in polyethylenes, a field she has continued to work in during her career with Dow.

Tracy Hester, UH Law Center
Professor Hester teaches environmental law at the University of Houston Law Center, where he co-directs the Law Center’s Environment, Energy & Natural Resources Law Center and the University of Houston’s Center for Carbon Management in Energy. He is a recognized expert on the innovative application of environmental laws to emerging technologies and unanticipated risks, including climate engineering, deep decarbonization (particularly in energy production), nanoscale materials and microplastics, and climate liability. In Fall 2019, Prof. Hester taught the first U.S. law school course on Climate Intervention Law, which focused on emerging climate engineering technologies and legal challenges. He also originated and teaches an innovative Environmental Practicum that matches students with multiple leading environmental attorneys to work on practical projects and to develop creative legal initiatives.

Professor Hester currently serves on the American Bar Association’s Climate Change Task Force, and he acted as one of the ABA’s delegates to the UN climate conferences in 2021 and 2022. During the summer of 2014, Prof. Hester served as the interim Director of the North America Commission on Environmental Cooperation's Submission on Environmental Matters Unit in Montreal, Canada. The Environmental Law Institute also named him as its Environmental Scholar in Residence for 2015.

Prof. Hester was inducted into the American College of Environmental Lawyers in 2015 (and named a Regent in 2018), elected as a member of the American Law Institute in 2004, and named the Top Environmental Lawyer in Houston in 2011 by Best Lawyers of America. He was also elected to the Council of the American Bar Association’s Section on Environment, Energy and Resources (SEER) in 2011 through 2014. Prof. Hester is the past chair of SEER’s Special Committee on Congressional Relations, its Climate Change and Sustainable Development Committee, and its Environmental Enforcement and Crimes Committee.

Prior to joining the University of Houston Law Center, Prof. Hester practiced for 25 years and served as a partner in Bracewell LLP for sixteen years. He led that firm's Houston environmental group.

Scott Pasternak, Burns & McDonnell
Mr. Scott Pasternak is an Associate and Department Manager for the Solid Waste and Resource Recovery Practice for Burns & McDonnell, which provides consulting services to advance solid waste and recycling programs for clients. Since the 1990s he has focused his career on working with clients to solve challenging technical and financial solid waste management and recycling issues. 

Geographically, he has worked for local, regional and state governments and private companies in 20 states.  From 1995-2000, he was a solid waste planner for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.  He holds a Masters’ of Science in Community and Regional Planning and Bachelor of Arts with Honors, both from the University of Texas.  He is the past Director for SWANA’s Planning and Management Technical Division and serves on the Municipal Solid Waste and Resource Recovery Advisory Council for the State of Texas and on the Board of Directors for the Lone Star Chapter of SWANA.

Aura Cuellar, LanzaTech
From environmental engineer to senior business leader, Aura Cuellar is determined to lead the energy industry on a path to profitable decarbonization. As LanzaTech’s Executive Vice President of Growth and Strategic Projects, Aura brings to her role extensive experience in manufacturing and a successful track record in global strategy development and implementation. Her time living and working in Europe, Africa, Asia and North and South America has shaped her inclusive world view and deep appreciation for regional approaches to address climate change and deliver growth.

Prior to joining LanzaTech, Aura served as Vice President of Energy Transition for Shell in the United States where she oversaw an annual capital projects portfolio of $500 million. In her 24+ year tenure at Shell, she advanced across various global senior executive roles including Head of Projects and Turnarounds in The Netherlands. Aura’s leadership was forged in manufacturing assets, including P&L responsibility and strategic commercial partnership development for sustainable revenue pipelines. Aura is passionate about cultural transformation with a focus on innovation and social equity. She excels in building integrated, robust teams in which individuals are empowered to deliver impactful commercial results.

Aura also serves as Honorary Consul to the Kingdom of The Netherlands in Houston, a role in which she contributes to addressing the shared challenges of climate adaptation and resilience, health and vitality, sustainable mobility, and the energy transition. Originally from Colombia, Aura holds a bachelor’s degree in Environmental and Civil Engineering from Seattle University, an MBA from Western Washington University, and completed Executive General Management from INSEAD and Harvard’s Women on Boards Program. Aura currently lives in Houston with her husband and two young boys and enjoys reading, traveling and long-distance running.