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Eastman advances two chemical recycling options

The chemical company's previous efforts were ahead of the times, but market conditions now appear to be in its favor.

Going circular seems to be all the rage, and that is certainly a good thing for both mankind's and the planet's future. But for a manufacturer, making the shift to circular processes or materials is not without its risks.

Perhaps few companies know that better than Eastman, the specialty chemical company, ranked No. 32 globally for sales in that sector. Back in the 1990s, Eastman made a major investment to develop a commercial line of PET materials that used 50 percent chemically recycled content. That effort was ahead of its time, and the line was discontinued because the demand never materialized.

Now, sensing the shifting winds, Eastman is back with not one, but two new circular production processes.

Chemical recycling of polyester

The first initiative centers on a new facility expected to be completed in 24 to 36 months, according to Holli Alexander, strategic initiatives manager for global sustainability at Eastman. The new operation will perform chemical recycling on a broadly mixed stream of polyester-family polymers using a process called methanolysis.

The input stream could include durable polyester plastics, as well as the "unwanted PET" that's been coated, colored or contaminated, and therefore not suitable for beverage bottles, according to Alexander. The process breaks down these various forms of recovered polyester into the two base monomers, dimethyl terephthalate (DMT) and ethylene glycol, from which virgin polyester is made.

Eastman calls this process Advanced Circular Recycling. "Our intention then is to use those monomers as intermediates, for our co-polyester production, in-house," Alexander said. That would include the company's Tritan plastic, used primarily for consumer housewares; Eastar for packaging; and the Glass Polymer for cosmetic packaging.

Plastic to gas to whatever you want

The second effort involves a gasification process, which Eastman calls Carbon Renewal Technology. It is, in fact, the circularization of an existing production process. Only now the approach will take in a much broader stream of mixed plastics, not limited to polyester, and break them down into the basic chemical constituents of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Those two chemicals, when combined, become syngas.

Brands are more motivated than ever to find viable options to use more sustainable materials that also have positive options for end of life.
Syngas is what Greener Package calls "the key to packaging sustainability" because it contains the building blocks of "virtually all plastic packaging materials." Eastman already uses syngas to create the acetate components of its Treva engineered bioplastic; the rest comes from plant-based cellulose derived from sustainable forests.

What has changed is that, using Carbon Renewal Technology, the syngas can be made from recycled plastics rather than virgin fossil fuels. This means that a more sustainable Treva, from which "ophthalmics, cosmetics, electronic display applications (lenses and covers), electronics and housings, and wearable devices and headphones" are made, can be produced from a mixture of cellulosic biomaterial and acetates derived from recycled feedstocks.

Given that Eastman already has a gasification already in operation, Alexander says it expects "to be selling products this year that will have content coming from carbon renewal." These would include "Cellulose Diacetate for eyeglass frames, [and] Naia for textiles and apparel." 

Rubbermaid Brilliance, Eastman, Tritan
Inputs to the gasification process include a number of waste plastics that cannot be recycled today with conventional recycling technology. Examples include plastics marked with Resin ID codes 4-7, such as flexible packaging, plastic films, multilayer plastic structures and various engineering plastics. 

The fact that Eastman will be providing wholly equivalent materials as drop-in replacements at comparable prices should minimize any issues on the demand side and hopefully will broaden the appeal of those products to consumers looking for sustainable options, according to Alexander.

"While we’ve stated that these are not new technologies, the world is facing significant crises around the plastic waste issue,” Alexander said. "Brands are more motivated than ever to find viable options to use more sustainable materials that also have positive options for end of life. The world is transforming, and with our people, our expertise, and our technologies, we believe Eastman has a key role in developing the solutions the world needs."

The search for circular sources

Of course, the circular economy introduces some new risks to material producers related to the supply side. After all, when the voluntary actions of consumers, combined with a reverse logistics infrastructure that is less than fully operational in many places, become essential links in your supply chain, how can you guarantee an uninterrupted and cost-reliable supply?

On this front, Alexander said, Eastman is working "very intentionally" on building out the supply chain and collection processes. The company has two to three years to develop this for the methanolysis facility. 

According to Alexander, "a variety of waste plastics from the polyester family are under consideration to feed the advanced circular recycling technology. We anticipate this will be a mix of traditional polyesters and modified specialty copolyesters. We have developed, operated and proven technologies that unlock value in waste plastics which cannot be recycled or are difficult to recycle today. Additionally, we hope to expand the process to include polyester-based textiles and yarns in the future."

The gasification process, on the other hand, on which the Carbon Renewal Technology is built, is already rolling with fossil feedstock, so recycled feedstocks can be added incrementally as they become available. 

After having left one recycled product behind that was "too green too soon," Eastman has come full circle, returning to the circular economy with two new, advanced processes that should bring considerable value to a marketplace that is finally more ready to embrace them.

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