Kingsport, TN

Eastman Chemical Company to build Molecular Plant

John M. Dabbs

(Photo by Eastman Chemical Company)

Never waste an opportunity. We've all heard this old adage, among others. How is Eastman, the world's 27th most sustainable company (Barron's 2021 list of the 100 Most Sustainable Companies in the United States), using opportunity?

Wasted opportunity

The waste crisis is a global issue. It and climate change are considered two enormous issues. They are the modern technological plague. They are considered insurmountable. Eastman may have engineered part of the solution.

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(Photo by Eastman Chemical Company)

Companies face "green" scrutiny from consumers, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), and investors. As a result, corporations set aggressive goals - these include recycled content in products.

Molecular recycling

Eastman Chemical Company is pioneering the shift to circular materials. Their engineers have redesigned materials to give them an infinite life and richer purpose. They've done this using two Advanced Circular Recycling technologies—carbon renewal and polyester renewal.

Such a move requires dedication and world-class technologies, in addition to being an advocate for smart legislation. Eastman has recycled millions of pounds of plastic since the start of molecular recycling in October 2019. They are committed to recycling more than 250 million pounds of plastic waste annually by 2025 and more than 500 million pounds annually by 2030.

Needing lots of material to recycle, Eastman will have plastic wastes coming into the Kingsport site by planes, trains, and automobiles (as it were... probably by train and truck).

What is Molecular Recycling

Molecular recycling is one of two ways in which waste is recycled. The most common form is mechanical recycling. This is where materials are grouped into types and chopped to bits. These chopped particles are then melted down into new forms for use. This form of recycling has limited applications as the remanufactured items are not as durable as the original item.

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(Photo by Eastman Chemical Company)

Molecular recycling uses modern chemical engineer to break down carbon and polyester-based materials into their essential molecules. From here they can be repurposed into any material or form needed, just as the raw material would be. The recycling process is not limited by the number of times the item has already been recycled.

Energy efficient

The carbon footprint of these processes (Carbon and Polyester Recycling Technology) is significantly improved when compared to traditional manufacturing. The polyester renewal technology reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 20-30 percent, compared with the process of initially manufacturing these materials. Carbon renewal technology reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 20-50 percent.

Eastman announced plans to build a large Polyester Recycling Facility in the Kingsport area with Tennessee Governor Bill Lee last month. Kingsport, Tennessee, is well suited for such a recycling plant as the world headquarters for the chemical giant.

The rail, highway, water, and energy infrastructure are in place. The local population and regional higher education available have proved to be assets for all major companies who have called Northeast Tennessee home.

Road to improvement

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(Image by Dominik Moser from Pixabay)

I asked Brad Lifford (Eastman Corporate Communications Representative) about the possible use of mechanically recycled materials being added to the asphalt in our roads and highways. This practice has shown some promise in other areas where roadways are notoriously bad and plastic waste has also been an issue.

Mr. Lifford states "the process is different from what they are doing. He states their focus is making a difference with their own technologies. We’re tackling the plastic waste crisis through molecular recycling – material-to-material technologies where we’re able to recycle hard-to-recycle plastics, with the ability to repeat this process an infinite number of times and with no loss in product quality."

Circular economy

Mr. Lifford's remarks are on track with the vision set by Eastman. They look at Carbon and Polyester Recycling Technology as the blueprint to a circular economy. They explain this compared to our traditional economy:

Linear Economy: Materials are produced, manufactured into goods, delivered to consumers, used, and then disposed of at the end of their life.

Circular Economy: Focus on making the most of from resources. Minimize waste, maximize value, and provide end-of-life solutions. These include the ability to reduce waste and reuse the basic components of items by recycling them more fully. It retains raw materials for reuse, decoupling growth from scarce resource consumption.

Eastman joins Global Plastics Pact

Eastman has joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in addition to the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment and the U.S. Plastics Pact. The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment is a vision of a circular economy for plastic in which it never becomes waste. Signatories commit to three actions to realize this vision:

  • Eliminate all problematic and unnecessary plastic items.
  • Innovate to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable, or compostable.
  • Circulate all used plastic items to keep them in the economy and out of the environment.

The U.S. Plastics Pact is a collaborative effort led by The Recycling Partnership and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Members strive to reach four ambitious goals by 2025:

  • Define and eliminate all problematic or unnecessary packaging.
  • Make all plastic packaging 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable.
  • Effectively recycle or compost 50% of plastic packaging.
  • Average 30% recycled or responsibly sourced biobased content.

The bottom line

What does all of this mean to people of the Tri-Cities? Jobs.

The state-of-the-art recycling center will mean new jobs to the Kingsport area. The infrastructure to support and feed raw materials into the stream creates even more jobs. It takes a lot more money to make raw materials and process them than it does to remanufacture items from their basic molecular structure.

It also takes more people to operate a facility that saves money doing it this way, than burying all of the waste in a landfill. It appears to be a win-win for everyone involved. Time will be the judge.

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An outdoor enthusiast with a passion for travel and adventure. John is a professional consultant and photojournalist.

Johnson City, TN
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