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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
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
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
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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 — 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
and clearly communicate how to recycle packaging
and products after use.
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
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.
Complementary (coming soon)
Economical (coming soon)
Transparent (coming soon)
Quality of life (coming soon)
Published Sep 28, 2023 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.