Rajiv Banavali and the science of sustainability
Rajiv Banavali holds up an ordinary looking white paper cup, the kind you get at a coffee shop. He explains that, in most cases, “paper cup” is a misnomer. Typically, they’re coated with plastics, making them neither recyclable nor biodegradable.
The cup the University of Missouri–St. Louis alumnus holds, the one he helped develop as senior vice president of science and innovation at WestRock Corporation, is different. It’s completely recyclable and biodegradable – a leap forward for sustainability.
“Once I got into the industry, I saw how we can solve problems to help people,” Banavali says. “Sustainability became the big thing. I got hooked on it, and I saw that the chemical industry has given us many great products, but it also has given us many problems.”
During his storied career as a chemist, manager, and business leader, Banavali has worked to solve those problems by leading research and development efforts for global corporations, such as Honeywell, Huntsman, Rohm and Haas, and now WestRock.
His love for problem-solving started with a family full of doctors and scientists in Mumbai, India. They encouraged his interest in chemistry. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Mumbai, he came to UMSL to pursue a PhD, graduating in 1985.
Lawrence Barton, professor emeritus of chemistry, took Banavali under his wing, helping him grow as a chemist and as a person.
“That was a great time in my life,” Banavali says. “I was still very young, but with the guidance of my professors I really grew up. UMSL taught me not only about chemistry, but also about how to build and navigate a productive life.”
After a postdoctoral fellowship, Banavali embarked on a three-decade career in the chemicals industry, leading cutting-edge research across the globe and developing an array of sustainable products.
As vice president and CTO of Honeywell’s Advanced Materials division, Banavali shepherded the creation of Solstice, a new line of refrigerants vastly superior to others on the market.
“When things leak from your refrigerators or your air conditioners, they basically cause global warming,” he says. “The scientists in my group developed the next generation, which are ozone safe and do not warm the planet. Taking them from lab to full commercialization was amazing.”
Banavali continued environmentally minded innovation as global vice president of research and technology at Huntsman, where he helped build a less wasteful industrial dying process for cotton garments. Now, at WestRock, he’s helping develop sustainable paper packaging in order to phase out single-use plastic.
In addition to his work, Banavali has served as a member of the Dean’s Leadership Council for the UMSL College of Arts and Sciences since 2007. According to Dean Andrew Kersten, Banavali recently “made a substantial gift to the Chemistry Department to foster the teaching and research into green and sustainable chemistry.”
In October, the UMSL Alumni Association presented him with a Distinguished Alumni Award in recognition of his contributions.
He is thankful but says he feels a duty to give back to the institution that gave him so much.
“I’m passionate about what I’m doing, and maybe that’s why it works,” Banavali says. “I’m really grateful for everything UMSL has done for me.”
This story was originally published in the spring 2022 issue of UMSL Magazine. If you have a story idea for UMSL Magazine, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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