Earth Day 2020: How Chemical Recycling Is Building Sustainable Solutions

Chemical recycling, aka “advanced recycling,” provides a way to rid the world of difficult-to-recycle plastics and produce many valuable end products. According to information supplied by Eastman Chemical (Kingsport, TN), chemical recycling alters the physical form of used plastics, either by dissolving the plastics with chemicals or using heat to break down polymers into their original components (monomers), resulting in a purified form of plastic or chemical products and feedstocks used to create new plastics, fuels, or other products.

A report from McKinsey & Co., “How Plastic Waste Recycling Could Transform the Chemical Industry,” noted that chemical recycling could be a viable method for recycling in “emerging-market countries” that lack the infrastructure for waste collection and management, including sorting trash into different waste streams. “Monomer recycling, although it is inherently restricted in its application to condensation-type polymers such as PET and polyamide, has the potential to generate some of the highest (11.2%) plastics recycling profitability levels,” said the report. “This is because monomer recycling can avoid the capital investments needed for steam crackers and aromatics plants, as well as the high-capital-cost plants required to make PET and polyamide intermediaries.”

In February 2020, less than a year after Eastman launched its innovative chemical recycling technologies to accelerate the circular economy, Eastman received a sustainability innovation award from the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) for its carbon renewal technology, a “game-changer” for recycling that can make a substantial impact on the global waste crisis, said Eastman.

Eastman Chemical's methanolysis recycling technology
Eastman’s methanolysis process converts waste plastics back to their monomer building blocks. Graphic courtesy Eastman Chemical.

Using carbon renewal technology, Eastman will recycle millions of pounds of carpet this year that otherwise would have gone to landfills, and it will recycle other materials from a variety of sources — such as single-use packaging — that traditional mechanical methods cannot process. On Nov. 5, 2019, Eastman announced it had reached an agreement with Circular Polymers to provide “recycling of post-consumer carpet through its carbon renewal technology and convert it into new materials to serve new and useful purposes,” said the company.

Circular Polymers, with corporate headquarters in Wilmette, IL, specializes in reclaiming post-consumer waste products for recycling at its plant in Lincoln, CA. Under the agreement, Circular Polymers will collect polyester carpet from homes and businesses and recycle it at the company’s California reclamation facility, where it utilizes a unique processing technology that efficiently separates the PET fiber from the carpeting. Circular Polymers densifies the fiber, which enables its efficient transport by railcar to Eastman’s Tennessee manufacturing site for chemical recycling, where it will produce new materials with certified recycled content. Those materials will be used to manufacture products used in Eastman’s markets, including textiles, cosmetics, personal care, and ophthalmics.

Creating a circular story for plastics

Holli Alexander, Strategic Initiative Manager of Global Sustainability for Eastman, told PlasticsToday that the company is excited about this “transformation” in chemical recycling. “While many of these recycling technologies are not brand new, we’re at an unprecedented place in time where we need to create a circular story for plastics. That necessitates bringing all types of solutions to the table.

“Advanced recycling technologies means that we can process materials that otherwise may not be mechanically recycled, such as different types of plastics and different polymer families. Another huge benefit of chemical recycling is that it gives us a chance to produce products that do not show degradation over time. Chemical recycling can create infinitely recyclable materials and we’re excited to have the technical expertise in this field.”

PlasticsToday marks Earth Day’s 50th anniversary April 22 with a series of articles highlighting the real efforts that the plastics industry is taking to mitigate plastic pollution and develop effective and viable sustainable solutions. You can find all of the relevant content by typing “Earth Day 2020” in the search box at the top of the home page.

Eastman’s two distinct technologies — polyester renewal and carbon renewal technologies — offer two solutions. Carbon renewal can take a variety of materials, including PLA, which currently has no mechanical recycling stream, and bring the waste plastic back to its molecular level — carbon and hydrogen. “We use that to create acid and use [synthesis gas] by-product in a variety of applications,” explained Alexander. “We can make some really interesting thermoplastics, such as Treva.”

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