Above: Eastman Chairman and CEO Mark Costa and Tennessee Governor Bill Lee Photo by Earl Neikirk
$250 million investment in Kingsport plant will allow company to use waste materials for product feedstock
Eastman Chemical Company Board Chair and CEO Mark Costa shared the stage Jan. 29 with Tennessee Governor Bill Lee to announce the company’s plans to build one of the world’s largest plastic-to-plastic molecular recycling facilities in Kingsport. The announcement included a commitment by Eastman to create around 90 new jobs in Kingsport in addition to an undisclosed number of construction jobs over the next two years as the company builds a $250 million facility.
“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. We are grateful for our partnership with Governor Lee in making today’s announcement possible,” said Costa. “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. 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.”
Lee responded, “Eastman has been a leader in the materials sector for over 100 years and continues to be a valued partner to our state. 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.” The governor confirmed that Tennessee’s Department of Economic and Community Development provided an incentive package to Eastman to locate the facility in Kingsport, but he declined to state the exact amount of the package, saying that information would be released at a later date.
This particular alchemy
Through a process called methanolysis, the facility will convert polyester waste that has until now largely ended up in landfills and waterways into durable products. The waste products will be reduced to their component molecules, and those molecules will then be reintroduced into the production cycle as feedstock.
“Utilizing the company’s polyester renewal technology,” Eastman said in a release, “the new facility will use over 100,000 metric tons of plastic waste that cannot be recycled by current mechanical methods to produce premium, high-quality specialty plastics made with recycled content. This process of using plastic waste as the main feedstock is a true material-to-material solution and will not only reduce the company’s use of fossil feedstocks, but also reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20-30 percent relative to fossil feedstocks.”
The chemistry class explanation of methanolysis is actually fairly simple. By introducing methanol (shorthand for methyl alcohol) under pressure at high temperature to polyester, one may essentially “unzip” the polyester’s chemical compounds, breaking them into reusable molecules including ethylene glycol and dimethyl terephthalate, among others.
Methanolysis itself is not a new process. In fact, Eastman Kodak used it for recycling polyester X-ray materials decades ago. “This is something that I actually wanted to start in 2010,” Costa told market analysts in a conference call an hour before the joint announcement with Governor Lee. “We actually had the plans on the (table) and were developing the engineering of it at that time, but the market wasn’t ready for it. We’re really excited because the market is very much ready for it now.”
Old process, new markets
With global interest in sustainable manufacturing practices rising and climate change playing a larger role in the decisions of government regulators around the world, Eastman finds itself in a favorable market position because of its head start in the field.
“A lot of customers are very interested in this as they’re making aggressive commitments to improve their recycled content,” Costa told analysts. “We have more than 100 customer trials going on right now across a wide range of different applications.” Those applications range from hydration to ophthalmology to consumer durables and electronics.
The first results are encouraging. Costa pointed to early successes with CamelBak and Nalgene, both of which have begun using Eastman’s Tritan Renew. All the products Eastman produces with methanolysis will be branded Renew, though it will be entirely up to the companies that use those products in their own production whether to publicize the fact they use Renew materials.
Costa said he expects the worldwide market to continue to grow. At this point, for instance, European markets are paying a premium for food packaging using recycled content. “I think customers recognize that there has to be some amount of premium that we have to achieve to make these kinds of investments to solve such a serious challenge we face around the world,” Costa said. “Obviously, everyone wants to keep this as affordable as possible, so we don’t expect our premiums to be significant, but (we do expect them to be) sufficient to give us an attractive return.”
A clean corporate conscience
Costa pointed out the environmental need for manufacturers to take a circular approach to their processes. “Globally, we have 300 million tons of waste plastic a year. Twenty percent of that ends up being incinerated. Forty percent-plus is in landfills and 20 percent escapes into the environment. This is not acceptable.
“The brands (companies that use Eastman chemicals in making their own branded products) see the need,” Costa continued. “It’s more important today than it was 12 months ago, around the globe. So, this is a huge opportunity and a huge challenge that we all have to solve. You see a lot of brands around the world setting very aggressive goals to have recycled content in their packaging and their products, as well as demanding all of us (the brands’ suppliers) to improve our carbon footprint.
An added benefit of the methanolysis process, Costa said, is that it reduces the company’s carbon footprint. “Any technologies we do around recycling, we believe there are two fundamental goals you have to meet at the same time,” Costa said. “We have a plastic waste crisis. We need to address it, and we shouldn’t be wasting any of that carbon in the environment or letting it impact the environment. But, at the same time, we’ve got to make sure our carbon footprint is better. Otherwise, we’re really not improving the overall environment. So, every technology we’re looking at has a better carbon footprint than the fossil fuel process. That’s true of methanolysis.”
It’s also true of Eastman’s other non-mechanical recycling technology, carbon renewal technology or CRT. Between the polyester recycling technology implementation at the new facility and existing CRT, Eastman can handle a broad array of potential feedstock ingredients. Thus, Eastman’s business model will allow it to access waste at a lower cost than potential competitors, because Eastman won’t need the waste to be pre-separated before it gets to Kingsport. With the separation capability already in place at Kingsport, Costa anticipated the company will expend significantly less capital than anyone starting from scratch, while making a greater difference in the amount of waste material going to landfills.
Think globally, act locally
The Kingsport methanolysis facility, which is expected to be mechanically complete by year-end 2022, will contribute to the company’s attempt to meet an ambitious sustainability commitment for addressing the worldwide plastic waste crisis, which includes recycling more than 500 million pounds of plastic waste annually by 2030 via molecular recycling technologies. The company has committed to recycling more than 250 million pounds of plastic waste annually by 2025.
While Kingsport will be the jumping off point, Costa pointed out that the business model is scalable. “We intend to partner with people around the world to do more plants,” he said. “But Eastman in this site is uniquely advantaged to be a leader in this, and that’s what’s so exciting – the site, scale and integration allows us to build this more economically, especially when we combine it with reforming waste mixed plastic with repurposing our gas fire from coal to plastic. That unique combination gives a unique advantage to this site that allows us to be a leader.
“We will be the largest methanolysis plant in the country, in Europe and frankly, in the world when we build this plant ahead of anyone else around the globe. So,” Costa concluded, “It’s exciting for Tennessee to be the leader.”