by Jeff Keeling
A century ago, Northeast Tennessee’s abundant timber resources and the methanol supply they could produce inspired George Eastman to establish what became Eastman Chemical Company. With Eastman entering its second century and the world seeking sustainable economic models, methanol is coming full circle thanks to Eastman’s constant focus on innovation, CEO Mark Costa said.
That innovation will help keep Eastman competitive through economic cycles, Costa added during a September 25 “countdown to centennial” event at the Toy F. Reid employee center. It will also help Eastman remain a primary driver in the region’s economy, and it could propel the company to a leadership role in advancing the “circular economy,” Costa told reporters.
“We see a huge opportunity right now in providing chemical recycling that allows us to take polyester and other plastics, and textiles in carpets, and recycle that carbon back into our new products,” Costa said.
Eastman uses two processes to transform waste plastics back to their original molecular states. One is chemical and is on the verge of scaling up. The other, which Eastman hopes to deploy at scale by 2021 or 2022, uses a process calls methanolysis to “unzip” waste products back to their basic carbon or ingredients, Costa said, and make a new product without extracting virgin resources.
“That’s a huge opportunity for us with the sensitivity today in the world about addressing plastics in the ocean, landfill problems, and we’re going to be at operational scale well ahead of anyone else in the Western world in solving this problem, so I’m really excited about that,” Costa said.
The new technology, along with other product innovations, lets Eastman to continue invest in Kingsport, where it employs about 7,000 full time and 4,000 contract workers and by Costa’s reckoning creates about seven additional small business jobs for each Eastman job. “We drive growth not just for ourselves but for the entire community, and we take that responsibility very seriously.”
Costa said Kingsport, which he called Eastman’s “biggest asset,” will benefit from investment in new technologies and drive their development. “A lot of this chemical recycling technology will likely happen here, and this is a way to keep on evolving the role that this town plays in making the world a better place.”
Costa said other innovative products also leave Eastman able to navigate the inevitable end of a long economic expansion. The key, he said, is “creating your own growth.” He ticked off a list of arrows in that proverbial quiver, including organic acids that replace the need for antibiotics in animal feed, additives that make tires more economical and fuel efficient and world leadership in production of non-phthalate plasticizers.
“The best thing we can do is innovate where we grow products like paint protection film for cars at double digit rates in a declining auto market, where we bring life back to a lot of products because of recycled content and grow and replace other peoples’ materials who don’t have that option… Innovation is how you defend yourself (and) it’s also how you create your own growth.”
Costa said Eastman’s competitiveness, innovation and focus on sustainability make him proud to be leading the company into its second century.
“We’re leaning in and making the world a better place from a health and wellness point of view, a natural resource efficiency point of view and a productivity point of view. That’s the heart of who we are.”