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The Next Economy
Molecular Recycling Could Be Crucial to Realizing a Circular Economy

We caught up with Eastman’s Plastics Division President, Scott Ballard, who explained the potential of molecular recycling as the company prepares to show the world what’s possible.

Eastman is set to open one of the world’s largest plastic-to-plastic, molecular-recycling facilities in the world at its Kingsport, Tennessee headquarters. It will convert more than 100,00 metric tons of plastic waste every year — creating like-new materials and reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by 20-30 percent, relative to fossil-based feedstocks.

Sustainable Brands® caught up with Eastman’s Plastics Division President, Scott Ballard, who explained how molecular recycling works as the company plans to show the world what’s possible.

What exactly is molecular recycling?

Scott Ballard: Molecular recycling uses chemistry to break down plastic to its original building blocks — molecules — then, clean them up and reassemble them into new materials that are indistinguishable from those made using traditional inputs.

It works in synergy with mechanical recycling to maximize the waste that can be kept from going to landfill or incineration. But it’s different in two important ways: First, it targets hard-to-recycle waste that’s bound for landfill or incineration because it has little to no value for mechanical technologies. And secondly, molecular recycling can create virgin-quality materials for applications where mechanically recycled materials may not meet the necessary requirements.

Why is the facility at Kingsport so groundbreaking?

We all know the world is facing a waste crisis. But there has been too much debate and not enough action. We’re putting our know-how and capital to work, and showing the world what’s possible with innovation.

It’s one of the world’s largest molecular-recycling facilities, and it will demonstrate how molecules can be transformed — from garbage to valuable products. It will process hard-to-recycle material which typically ends up in landfill or incineration today.

What sort of hard-to-recycle materials will it process?

Things like colored shampoo bottles, opaque milk and protein drink bottles, yogurt cups, carpet fibers and other materials that current recycling technologies can’t process.

Every year, the plant will use more than 110kmt of plastic waste as feedstock. That’s enough waste to fill Knoxville’s Neyland Stadium two and a half times.

How are you calculating the 20-30 percent savings in GHGs?

Well, since the molecules recycled in this facility go into a variety of polymers — primarily via dimethyl terephthalate (DMT) — we used that monomer as the comparison point. We then used standard life cycle assessment (LCA) tools to assess potential environmental impacts throughout its life cycle. Eastman commissioned Quantis to complete an LCA for methanolysis, which included a critical review by a panel of third-party LCA experts. The study was carried out in conformance with the international LCA standards ISO 14040 and 14044.

What we found was that producing DMT by methanolysis from recycled-waste polyester results in 29 percent lower GHGs, compared to DMT produced from conventional fossil material. This calculation was done without considering the avoided incineration; so, the actual impact is even greater.

And this facility is just the beginning — we’re going to continue to enhance the technology; and future projects are expected to achieve even larger reductions in GHGs.

How does this new facility fit into Eastman’s vision for the future?

We want to create a circular economy where materials are continuously reused and waste is minimized. We aim to develop sustainable solutions that address the global challenges of plastic waste, climate and caring for a growing population.

This facility plays a significant role in realizing this vision. By investing in this state-of-the-art facility and two others like it, Eastman is demonstrating its commitment to sustainability and circularity. The plant aligns with our goal of driving innovation in recycling and contributing to a more sustainable future by closing the loop on plastic waste.

What challenges do you see ahead that could impact this vision?

Regulatory requirements are driving demand as governments implement policies to address plastic pollution and climate change. However, there is not enough supply in the market to meet those goals without our technologies.

Arguably, the biggest risk to these circular models is regulatory uncertainty. The acceptance of molecular recycling, mass-balance chain of custody, recycled-content mandates, extended producer responsibility (EPR) bills — are all being passionately debated. The specialty materials industry is ready and willing to invest; but first and foremost, we need clarity on policy.

What immediate impacts do you anticipate from the facility?

My hope is the biggest and most immediate impact is showing the world what’s possible. Too many people get stuck in existing constraints of today’s recycling systems. If society wants a circular economy that keeps molecules out of landfill and in continual service, we must redesign and evolve what we do. That includes policy, personal behavior and infrastructure.

Hopefully, when people can see that innovation is more than a promise and that it’s tangibly happening, it will help catalyze the evolution of the recycling ecosystem.

And in five to ten years’ time?

The vision is that even more companies will bring innovation to the space; and hopefully regulatory policy will be designed to drive it. Consumers will benefit by being able to recycle substantially more of the plastics they need, and they’ll be motivated to do it.

And the players in the recycling industry will be able to profitably invest in the collection and sortation that can deliver the right materials to the right channel to keep it out of landfill.

This is possible in a five- to ten-year time timeframe if we all courageously commit to the vision and change.

The impact — not only to the plastic waste crisis, but to the climate — will be immense.

If you consider the sectors in which you will be serving, where do you foresee having the biggest impact?

There’s a very broad applicability in almost any industry where there is a desire to replace dependence on oil and lower GHGs.

Renew materials — which come out the other end — offer a number of benefits in the packaging space. They are being used in packaging applications from food contact to cosmetics, and personal care and medical device packaging.

For brands making the switch, they get recycled content with a material that is a drop-in replacement. Renew materials have received letters of no objection from the US FDA, so they can be used in direct food-contact applications.

For cosmetics and personal-care and food-contact packaging, we’re offering Renew materials that are also recyclable. For medical packaging, it provides a sustainable material option where one did not previously exist, due to strict traceability requirements.

So, what’s the initial priority?

Our initial focus is on areas where the durability of our products can help reduce reliance on single-use plastic, and where we can help enable the adoption of circular practices in specialty packaging.

Some of the larger applications are reusable water bottles by companies like Camelbak and Nalgene, food-storage containers and other foodservice items that eliminate single-use plastic.

Specific examples include: Herbal Essences™ shampoo and conditioner packaging; Stanley Black & Decker reviva™ line of power tools; Ethicon Johnson & Johnson medical device packaging; a variety of LVMH perfumes and cosmetics packaging.

What must brands and other industry partners do to prepare for the future?

First, we all need to understand that plastics are essential to our quality of life. Plastics are used in medical devices, to extend the shelf life of food, and to provide clean drinking water. And the Global Warming Potential is worse for glass and aluminum than plastic.

We also need to work together and expand infrastructure for collection and sortation of materials. And perhaps most importantly, we need policy that allows for innovation — not policy that traps us in today’s systems. We must all work together to help drive smart policy that allows all stakeholders to collaborate and be a part of this solution.