Published 3 weeks ago.
About a 7 minute read.
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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
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
Scott Ballard: Molecular
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
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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.
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
two and a half times.
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.
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
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.
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
(EPR) bills — are all being passionately debated. The specialty materials
industry is ready and willing to invest; but first and foremost, we need clarity
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
that keeps molecules out of landfill and in continual service, we must redesign
and evolve what we do. That includes policy, personal
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
The vision is that even more companies will bring innovation to the space; and
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.
There’s a very broad applicability in almost any industry where there is a
desire to replace dependence on
and lower GHGs.
— 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
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
Specific examples include: Herbal Essences™ shampoo and conditioner
Stanley Black & Decker reviva™
of power tools; Ethicon Johnson & Johnson medical device
a variety of LVMH perfumes and cosmetics
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
is worse for glass and aluminum than plastic.
We also need to work together and expand
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.
Published Nov 1, 2023 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 12pm GMT / 1pm CET
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This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.