Going full circle

Going full circle

Eastman’s methanolysis recycling technology promises to convert polyesters into their constituent monomers.

March 14, 2019

Eastman, Kingsport, Tennessee, is the most recent company to announce a chemical recycling solution for end-of-life plastics. The company’s process uses methanolysis, which broadly involves treating polyethylene terephthalate (PET) with methanol under pressure and with heat, resulting in its depolymerization. The process yields dimethyl terephthalate (DMT) and ethylene glycol (EG).

Ron Sheppard, director of corporate innovation, says the DMT and EG that result from Eastman’s methanolysis technology, which he refers to as “advanced circular recycling,” can be refined and purified to their original quality.

“Eastman has been a DMT producer since the 1960s; we understand how to produce and purify this product,” he says. 

The company uses traditional process technology to accomplish the methanolysis, Sheppard says, but he adds that he’s unable to go into the exact details because Eastman is in the process of filing intellectual property regarding the process.

Meeting consumer expectations

Consumer demands and the issue of mismanaged end-of-life plastics are factors that have contributed to Eastman’s move to commercialize this technology.

“I’ve been in the industry for 24 years, and people have always been talking about sustainability since I’ve been in the industry in different forms,” says Courtland Jenkins, Eastman business director of specialty plastics. “What has changed is that consumers are actually making purchase decisions based on sustainability, and that’s probably the biggest change that I’ve seen in the last few years. This is causing brands to incorporate sustainability into their corporate, their brand and their product strategy.”

He continues, “That’s why I think it is the right time to do this. The consumer is using their influence to really change the behaviors of the marketplace.”

Holli Alexander, strategic initiatives manager, global sustainability, Eastman, says brands in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) sector are setting goals to increase the recyclability of their plastic packaging and to use more recycled content by 2025.  “As all of this is starting to coalesce, we’re starting to recognize that traditional mechanical recycling may not be enough to get us to those types goals. So, we are very excited to start to see how we can leverage the technology in a marketplace that will be receptive to and will need this technology to help to create the right types of products that will help some of these products get to 100 percent recycled content.”

Jenkins says within CPG companies, marketing and engineering can be at odds, with marketing working to address sustainability, while engineering would prefer to go down a different path.  “Marketing wants the story to show they are sustainable and to reinforce the consumer in that purchase decision,” he says. “Engineering doesn’t want to compromise performance. You need a technology that enables you to satisfy both groups because both groups have legitimate claims.”  

That, Jenkins says, is what Eastman’s technology can offer.

Eastman’s technology also has the potential to address the plastic waste problem, Alexander says, by addressing hard-to-recycle plastics or those that don’t have critical mass, which is necessary for cost-effective mechanical recycling. “We are looking at where we have gotten as a global economy with mechanical recycling, and we have the need for a variety of different materials to serve the expectations and the requirements for different applications, and mechanical recycling may not be the solution to get us to where we need to go to create a truly circular economy,” she says.

Alexander says Eastman’s advanced circular recycling offers a viable end-of-life option for some materials that are challenging to recycle manually. “This is a twofold solution for Eastman because this helps us provide end-of-life options for our products that are a little different because we tend to be focused on specialty materials.”

By using this technology, Eastman will be able to create recycled-content feedstocks that its customers are used to using but with the performance, clarity and safety they are used to, she adds.  

Sheppard says any polyester material, including textiles, carpet and packaging, is suitable as feedstock for the process. Even multilayer film can be used as feedstock; the nonpolyester material would exit the process as waste, as would dyes and additives.  

Investing in change

Eastman is executing an engineering feasibility study on the design and construction of a commercial scale methanolysis facility to meet its customers’ demands. The company says it has engaged in initial discussions with potential partners across the value chain regarding the development of such a facility. Eastman’s goal is to operate a full-scale, circular recycling facility within 24 to 36 months.

Jenkins says Eastman is looking for multiple business partners to co-invest in the construction of this facility to help deleverage some of the associated risk.

The company also is working to secure feedstock sources, Sheppard says. He adds that Eastman is not looking at polyester materials that already have good end-of-life options through mechanical recycling. “To do that, we have to activate a large feed stream that does not exist today.”

Such a stream could include PET scrap that mechanical recyclers generate, such as fines, Alexander says. PET thermoforms or colored material also could be targeted in addition to low-quality polyester scrap that would typically be diverted to landfills.

Alexander says Eastman will tap into different parts of the value chain to secure the feedstock it needs for the process, stressing that the company has no desire to compete with mechanical recyclers for material. “This is a complementary technology to mechanical recycling.”

Finding the right location

Eastman is looking at potential locations for the facility in areas that have the infrastructure and logistics required.

Alexander adds that such a location would be close to the infeed streams used in the process as well as to plastics manufacturing infrastructure. “We don’t know where the right balance will be yet,” she says. “No single location meets all of those criteria today.”

While a number of questions remain to be answered, Sheppard expresses confidence in Eastman’s ability to execute its vision. “I do think we are uniquely positioned to pull this off and be successful.”