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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
6 Principles Driving Circular Innovation at Eastman

Learn about how we're transforming recycling to create a circular economy in this six-part series.

The recycling industry is evolving. Emerging technologies are creating new opportunities to recover and reuse existing materials such as hard-to-recycle plastics. These approaches to recycling vary from the mechanical recycling that is familiar to the public, and are a promising foundation for a circular economy.

Mechanical recycling

Modern mechanical recycling has been around for more than 50 years. With mechanical recycling, materials such as milk jugs and aluminum cans are ground or shredded; then, washed and dried before being reprocessed.

It’s a relatively energy-efficient process; but there are shortcomings to mechanical recycling. It accepts limited materials and can only prolong their inevitable end of life because the process downgrades the material — ultimately, creating materials that can no longer be recycled and are destined for the landfill.

Despite these shortcomings, mechanical recycling is an important tool for returning certain materials to the value chain. But to move toward a more circular economy, mechanical recycling should be supplemented with other technologies.

Advanced recycling

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Advanced recycling, often referred to as chemical recycling, is designed to address those shortcomings and is promising great progress for the materials industry — and, in some cases, true circularity. As the industry defines itself, the terms "advanced" and "chemical" are often used interchangeably; but there are various processes and outputs that fall under the category of "advanced recycling." The most promising for a circular future, however, is molecular recycling — a type of advanced recycling to which we are exclusively committed.

Molecular recycling

Molecular recycling — a term first coined by Eastman — is a material-to-material recycling method that breaks waste down into its molecular building blocks, which are then used to create virgin-quality material. Molecular recycling provides near-infinite recyclability; and when certain parameters are met, it’s a powerful solution for enabling a truly circular future for the materials industry.

Our six principles for a circular economy outline these parameters and can serve as a guide for the industry and policymakers to help propel closed-loop recycling and reduce environmental and social consequences of the materials industry.

These principles can be easily summed up like this: “Reduce, reuse and recycle” is only the beginning. Material-to-material recycling improves quality of life, is a complement to mechanical recycling and should be economically viable and transparent.

Eastman’s six principles for building a circular economy.

Imagine the positive impact if policymakers support this approach and the industry adopts these principles. We believe it will greatly improve the state of the materials and recycling industries — and, ultimately, the state of the planet.

The role of consumers

According to our 2023 Consumer Insights Report, millennials and Gen Z care deeply about plastic pollution: 83 percent say they’re very concerned about the increasing amount of plastic waste headed to landfills or being incinerated; and 79 percent are concerned about single-use plastics. But a similarly high amount (70 percent) isn’t convinced that the items they place in the recycling bin are actually getting recycled; and 65 percent express confusion about what can be recycled.

That’s not great news. Even though the desire to recycle is strong, it’s clear that the recycling system itself is instilling doubt and confusion, impacting recycling behaviors and, ultimately, reducing the amount of waste we’re capturing and reusing.

But to improve the system, we need everyone to keep recycling. According to Rubicon, 75 percent of our waste is recyclable; but in the US, we are only recycling 30 percent — roughly 80 percent of the items ending up in landfills could be recycled. Those are staggering statistics.

Although there are challenges with our current processes, 69.1 million tons of materials waste was recycled in 2018. And the industry is moving quickly to improve and evolve the system to make it more effective. By continuing to recycle, consumers are diverting valuable “waste” from the landfill and helping these materials enter back into product supply chains. Because, with the capabilities of molecular recycling, it’s only waste if you waste it.

The role of companies

Brands and companies also have a critical role to play. As companies continue to set, strive for and reach their recycled content goals in packaging and products, the demand for recycled content will continue to grow. But alongside that, we need consumers to trust that the system works so that they continue to recycle.

As demand and trust grow, the recycling system becomes more and more robust. To help achieve this, companies should create products and packaging made with recycled content, design for recyclability, and clearly communicate how to recycle packaging and products after use.

The role of policy

Not all advanced recycling is created equal. And many approaches — including Eastman’s molecular-recycling technologies — have been lumped in with other chemical-recycling methods; some of which are far less sustainable and may be more energy intensive or not circular, such as technologies that burn materials for fuel.

Because of this lack of clarity around these emerging technologies, current policy proposals tend to be cautious and restrictive. This hinders progress in the industry. However, if legislation adopted these six principles as a guide for policy, it would enable innovation in advanced recycling and allow sustainable technologies to thrive.

With molecular recycling, waste becomes infinitely valuable. We only risk not having enough material input if people don’t return the plastic waste back to the system; so, there needs to be a shift in thinking. We must start seeing what was previously known as “waste” as inherently valuable, and design infrastructure and policy to aid in the collection of these materials. This will benefit communities and brands alike and create a more sustainable materials infrastructure. Consumers have a role to play; but brands and policymakers hold the keys to set the circular economy in motion.

Learn more about each of our six principles for a circular economy:

  1. Reduce, reuse, recycle

  2. Material to material

  3. Complementary (coming soon)

  4. Economical (coming soon)

  5. Transparent (coming soon)

  6. Quality of life (coming soon)