Inside Eastman’s moonshot goal for endlessly circular plastics

Inside Eastman’s moonshot goal for endlessly circular plastics
Joel Makower
Mon, 05/11/2020 - 00:44

At first glance, the sprawling industrial site, covering roughly 900 acres in Kingsport, Tennessee, appears to be just another chemical manufacturing facility. There are hundreds of buildings and countless miles of pipes, conveyors, distillers, cooling towers, valves, pumps, compressors and controls. It doesn’t exactly look or feel particularly noteworthy.

But something extraordinary is going on at this Eastman chemical plant: two breakthrough processes to turn waste plastics of all kinds back into new plastics, continuously, with no loss of quality.

Last year, the company announced two major initiatives:

Carbon renewal technology , or CRT, which breaks down waste plastic feedstocks to the molecular level before using them as building blocks to produce a wide range of materials and packaging. The company claims this enables waste plastics to be recycled an infinite number of times without degradation of quality.

Polyester renewal technology , or PRT, which involves taking waste polyesters from landfills and other waste streams and transforming them back into a raw material that the company claims is indistinguishable from polyester produced from fossil-fuel feedstocks.

With both CRT and PRT, hard-to-recycle plastics can be recycled an infinite number of times, says Eastman, creating products that can claim high levels of certified recycled content — a true closed loop.

Both technologies are or will be hitting the market, so it is too soon to call them a success. Still, they represent a story about a legacy industrial company seeking to reinvent itself by simultaneously addressing the climate crisis, the scourge of plastic waste and the need to accelerate resource efficiency to meet the material needs of 10 billion people by mid-century.

If it works, this old-line corporate icon could find itself a leading light in the emerging circular economy .

Chemical reaction

Eastman, celebrating its centennial this year, was founded by George Eastman, the entrepreneur who, in the late 1880s, started the Eastman Kodak Company. ("Kodak" was a made-up word he appended to his last name.) Along the way, he nearly singlehandedly democratized photography (and spawned countless "Kodak moments" ) through the company’s production of cameras, film, processing chemicals and related goods and services.

In 1920, in the wake of World War I, Eastman’s company was suffering a scarcity of raw materials, including photographic paper, optical glass and gelatin, and many chemicals — such as methanol, acetic acid and acetone — needed to produce and process film stock and prints. He determined that ensuring his company’s future would require self-reliance. He set out to find a suitable location for a Kodak-owned and operated chemical production...