The circular economy

 

The clock is ticking to deliver solutions for the world, and Eastman is uniquely suited to be an important player.

Plastic is an indispensable part of our modern life, a material so versatile that it is the solution to countless elements of our everyday lives, including food packaging, medical devices, cars and electronics, just to name a few.

What we do after we’re done with it — and how we dispose of it — has become a sticky problem. The world depends on plastic in myriad ways, but when plastic products aren’t properly disposed of, they can end up in our waterways and eventually make their way to the ocean.

Eastman, as a specialty materials company, is hardwired to constantly look for real-world problems where our technologies are uniquely positioned to provide solutions. The solution to this problem aligns with Eastman’s philosophy, requiring innovative thinking to the highest degree and providing us the opportunity to leverage our talented employees to provide practical solutions.

But this situation is more than just an opportunity for Eastman. It’s way more than that.

“We have to be part of this solution,” said Eastman’s Steve Crawford. “Accelerating the circular economy is one very important area where we are bringing our purpose statement to life. This is enhancing the quality of life in a material way.”

Advanced Recycling Technology
Through the process of methanolysis, polyester plastic waste materials are taken back to their polymer building blocks. These building blocks can then be reintroduced to the production of new polyester-based polymers. Advanced circular recycling technology can be an especially impactful solution as low-quality polyester waste that would typically be diverted to landfills can instead be recycled into high-quality polyesters suitable for use in a variety of end markets, including food contact applications.

As chief technology officer, Crawford leads an Eastman team of hundreds of scientists and engineers behind the technological know-how to deliver solutions for a circular economy — an economy where we minimize waste, make the most of our resources and reuse or repurpose them where possible.

Eastman unveiled two advanced recycling innovations early in 2019 and did so rapid fashion, so to the outside observer, it may have appeared that it all bubbled up overnight. The fact is that advanced circular recycling relies on a chemical recycling method that the company practiced many years ago for a different application, and carbon renewal technology results from a process innovation applied to the front end of cellulosics production in Kingsport, Tennessee.

“We’re world experts in both of these technologies,” Crawford said. “Together, they give us an opportunity to develop partnerships to provide solutions, including better end-of-life options that will have an impact on the global waste problem. It’s extremely important that we succeed here as we can pave the way for the entire industry and make a material difference for this global problem ”

Just as Eastman’s expertise on this issue did not happen overnight, neither did its vision that there would be a need. Eastman took a serious interest in ocean health back in 2012 when it first connected with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

Eastman’s engagement with WHOI scientists led to a much deeper understanding of the global concerns of climate change and plastic in the ocean. With climate a critical driver, Eastman and the Eastman Foundation quickly partnered with WHOI on a variety of projects focused on improving ocean data, including supporting the launch of a low-cost X-spar buoy in 2015 to measure air/sea flux in remote, inhospitable regions of the ocean where bottom-anchored buoys are not feasible.

Eastman’s early work with Woods Hole highlighted a fundamental scientific concept that has a direct bearing on today’s circular economy focus.

When Eastman started working with Woods Hole, it really brought to bear the concept of the interconnectivity of everything — water, energy, food, materials. It takes water and energy to make food. It takes food and water to make energy. Everything’s connected; everything’s a trade-off. And the reason that’s important is that when you look at ocean, climate and atmosphere, you realize these are all giant feedback loops. And so doing damage in one space often does damage in all the spaces, and if you help in one in the right way, you help them all.

Driven by increasing public awareness and the changing regulatory landscape, many consumer product companies and brands are setting aggressive goals for reducing waste and increasing the recyclability of their products or packaging. Eastman is engaging markets and customers to determine how it — with its new recycling technologies, materials innovation and application development expertise — can help enable those companies to meet those goals and accelerate a more circular economy.

Carbon Renewal Technology
Capable of recycling some of the most complex plastic waste, including non-polyester plastics and mixed plastics, this new recycling technology addresses plastics that cannot be recycled with conventional recycling technologies, diverting materials such as flexible packaging and plastic films, among others, from landfills. By modifying the front end of Eastman’s cellulosics production stream, carbon renewal technology converts mixed plastic feedstock back to simple and versatile molecular components. The process partially oxidizes the waste plastic, converting the feedstock input at very high efficiency, back into the basic building blocks of Eastman’s cellulosics product lines that serve industries such as ophthalmics, durables, packaging, textiles and nonwovens.

As sustainability strategic initiatives manager, Holli Alexander has become an Eastman road warrior who, along with Eastman’s sales teams, visits with customers and brands to understand their material needs through a lens where sustainability marries up with material performance.

“One of the biggest catalyzing factors right now that’s really driving change in the industry,” Alexander said, “is the very public commitments that many consumer product companies are making right now. Many of them have set goals for recyclability of their packaging by 2025. Many of them have goals around wanting their products to actually be made from sustainable feedstocks like renewable plastics or recycled-content plastics. So what we’re trying to do is determine, with the technologies we’re putting into place, how we can help enable those companies start to meet those goals.

“It’s a very exciting time with such clear focus on where brands want to go. From consumer products companies to even durables companies who have great goals longer term, it’s a great indicator for the rest of us to really figure out what we can to make our products more sustainable.”