Eastman Chemical Co., headquartered in Kingsport, Tennessee, has announced that it will build a “molecular” recycling facility for end-of-life polyester products and packaging at its existing site in that city. Eastman board Chair and CEO Mark Costa made the announcement in press conference Jan. 29 that also was hosted online. He was joined by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee.
Leveraging scale and integration
Eastman’s Kingsport site is one of the largest integrated chemical manufacturing plants in North America. Costa tells Recycling Today, “We evaluated a number of possible locations, and ultimately, we made the decision based on our scale and integration in Kingsport. Also, we were able to work together with Tennessee state officials to make this investment here.”
The company says it will use methanolysis to convert end-of-life polyester products and polyethylene terephthalate packaging that are difficult to recycle by mechanical means into recycled raw materials that will be used to produce the company’s specialty plastics.
Over the next two years, Eastman says it will invest approximately $250 million in the facility, which will support Eastman’s commitment to addressing the global waste crisis and to mitigating challenges created by climate change while also creating value for its stakeholders. Using the company’s polyester renewal technology (PRT), the new facility will consume more than 100,000 metric tons of end-of-life plastics that cannot be recycled by current mechanical methods.
“The plant will be able to process a variety of feedstocks from the packaging, carpet and textiles markets,” Costa tells Recycling Today. “We are already purchasing polyester from multiple sources for our molecular recycling technologies and are making plans with our partners to increase volumes as the plant startup approaches. With this technology, Eastman will divert waste that would otherwise be landfilled, incinerated or end up in our waterways. And we can do this an infinite numbers of times.”
In the press conference, Costa noted that California is a leading supplier of end-of-life carpet currently through the company’s partnership with Circular Polymers, which densifies the fiber, enabling its transport by railcar to Eastman’s Kingsport site.
Building on past successes
This past summer, Eastman introduced Tritan Renew copolyester, a product that contains up to 50 percent recycled content derived from the company’s Advanced Circular Recycling technologies. Nalgene and CamelBak are among Eastman’s customers using its Tritan Renew copolyester made with 50 percent chemically recycled plastic.
That announcement came a little more than a year after the company first announced its commercial chemical recycling intentions. In 2019, Eastman began commercial-scale recycling for a broad set of plastics using its Advanced Circular Recycling technologies—carbon renewal technology (CRT) and PRT.
“Innovation has been at the heart of Eastman since we began,” Costa said during the press conference, noting that the company was founded by George Eastman in 1920. He added that the methanolysis plant will be a “huge new vector of growth for us in the circular economy” and involves “significant infrastructure announcements that require cooperation from everyone in the state.”
Costa said Eastman also plans to deploy the technology more broadly in the future.
In a transcript of Eastman’s Q4 earnings call prepared by Seeking Alpha, Costa says of the return on invested capital (ROIC) for the methanolysis plant in Tennessee “is unique compared to normal specialty investments because we can load the plant so fast. So, the payback period is a lot faster for us in this one compared to normal … .”
He continues, “So, I think we are really repositioning the company in a pretty significant way. But the whole value of what we can do that’s so unique and so powerful in the circular economy is leveraging our integration of our site here in Tennessee. We’ve talked a lot about scale and integration being a huge competitive advantage for us. And a lot of people have thought about that being cost. I’ve always thought about that being about enabling innovation and growth. And here’s another example where this vastly interconnected and complicated infrastructure that we have here is going to be key to differentiating us and doing something that very few other people can do at our economic efficiency. I mean, we can definitely do methanolysis around the world, but the way we can do it here is going to be uniquely advantaged relative to a stand-alone plant. Both are attractive. This is just really attractive, and the other ones are still going to be more attractive than the 15 percent ROIC.”
Eastman says using end-of-life plastics as the main feedstock is a material-to-material solution, reducing the company’s use of fossil feedstocks and reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 20 to 30 percent relative to fossil feedstocks.
“With the growing demand for products made with recycled content and the urgent need to address the global plastic waste crisis, now is the time for Eastman to take this step,” Costa says in a news release that accompanied the announcement. “We are grateful for our partnership with Gov. Lee in making today’s announcement possible.
“Thanks to the support of the state of Tennessee and our local officials, we are able to build this facility in our home state, which we believe positions Tennessee to be a leader in enabling the circular economy and an example for others to follow,” he adds. “This will be a great investment for our local community and our customers, while also creating small business jobs to develop the recycling infrastructure necessary to support investment in a sustainable future.”
During the press conference, Costa said the facility will create 90 jobs at Eastman and that each of those jobs will create an additional six to seven jobs in the Kingsport community.
“Eastman has been a leader in the materials sector for over 100 years and continues to be a valued partner to our state,” Lee says in the news release. “I’d like to thank the company for investing in Kingsport and its highly skilled workforce and for focusing on innovative technology that enhances the quality of life for people not just in Tennessee, but around the world.”
During the press conference, Costa said Eastman wanted to build this facility 10 years ago but could not find sufficient market demand to justify the investment. That has changed more recently, he says, adding that more than 100 companies are working with Eastman to trial plastics made from the raw materials generated through PRT.
A broader strategy
“While today’s announcement is an important step, it is just part of the company’s overall circular economy strategy,” Costa says in the news release. He added that Eastman is actively working on next steps forward with its circular economy initiatives, including partnerships and direct investments in Europe.
This facility, which is expected to be completed by year-end 2022, will contribute to Eastman achieving its sustainability commitments for addressing the plastic waste crisis, which includes recycling more than 500 million pounds of plastic waste annually by 2030 via molecular recycling technologies and becoming carbon neutral by 2050, according to the company. Eastman says it has committed to recycling more than 250 million pounds of plastic waste annually by 2025.
In the press conference, Costa said Eastman needs to “prove” chemical recycling “is real in addition to making money for investors.” He added, “Banning plastic is not a solution. We have to lead the way [in chemical recycling] and prove it viable and scalable.”
Costa tells Recycling Today Eastman is “actively working on next steps forward with our circular economy initiatives, including partnerships and direct investments in Europe.”
He adds, “We are collaborating with customers and brands, of course, that are excited about more sustainable solutions and increasingly demand products with a better, more sustainable footprint. We believe the time is right for Eastman to take the next major step to invest in a molecular recycling facility at our Kingsport site as part of our commitment to address the plastic waste crisis—but this problem is too big for one stakeholder to solve alone. Industry, government, [nongovernmental organizations] and others must work together to address the waste crisis. Through molecular recycling, we have the capability to recycle complex plastic waste that would otherwise be landfilled, incinerated or end up in our waterways, but we need a new infrastructure to get those discarded materials into recycling facilities like Eastman’s. We need smart policies that will drive investment in that infrastructure. So, Eastman is collaborating with waste management companies, nonprofits, local/state governments and policymakers to drive increased recycling through a combination of incentives, mandates and investments in that reimagined recycling infrastructure. No one group or entity has the solution—it will take all of us working together.”