When you figure out how to turn garbage into gold, get other people to pay you to take their garbage


The phenomenon that is #2020 continues unabated. Massive unemployment. Trillions of dollars of new debt. A pandemic. Racial strife. Murder hornets. Fire tornadoes. Zoom meetings. Zoom dating. That tiger thing on Netflix. Everybody trying to make sourdough bread for some reason. And, of course, a presidential election campaign that makes one remember fondly the sound, sober and sensible candidacy of Ross Perot.

What we need right now is some kind of alchemy that turns this year’s daily helping of what a polite person might call “solid waste” into gold. We’d all be rich as Midas.

Actually, though, one need look no further than Eastman to find just such alchemical magic. The specialty materials manufacturer (the words “chemical company” are no longer adequate to describe what Eastman does) really has found a way to break down waste material into individual chemical components that can then be reused in making brand new products.

Remarkably, there are still some in the community who hear “Reduce, reuse, recycle” and think dismissive thoughts of 1970s hippies and modern-day snowflakes. The folks at Eastman, on the other hand, tend to think of the circular economy as being very capitalist. It’s based on the foundational principle of buying low and selling high. If you can add value to what others throw away, odds are you’ll be rich someday.

So, if 300 million tons of plastic get used every year, and fewer than 50 million tons of that total gets recycled, yes, one can view it in terms of one’s social conscience as a global environmental problem, but one can also see an economic opportunity of similar scope.

Rather than having to purchase new raw materials every time the company gets an order to manufacture a certain product, Eastman can take old carpeting, for instance, break it down using technology born from the coal gasification process, and extract the molecules of the needed raw material for use or sale.

Customers get the new product they want. Eastman builds greater long-term viability by lowering its raw materials cost, thus increasing margins. And yes, the landfills and oceans have that much less waste in them.

The company is actually using two different technologies to achieve the same end. One is for cellulosic polymers, the other is for polyester. Just think, polyester now once again has a useful purpose. Thousands of thrift store leisure suits have their long-awaited chance for redemption.

Eastman’s leaders say they are far ahead of the rest of the industry when it comes to these technologies because Eastman can use very inexpensive waste as feed stock for the program while other companies try to catch up.

Mark Costa, Eastman board chair and CEO says of the reforming effort, “We take sustainability (into what we do), improving the environment as well as the quality of life every day.”

Of course, Eastman is still subject to the headwinds of #2020, just the same as the rest of us. The company has acknowledged reductions in employment worldwide are likely coming before the end of the year. It is interesting to me that some of the same people who see snowflakes behind every environmentally responsible yet profitable action, also see Eastman as somehow being villainous for entertaining the possibility of staff reductions during a worldwide economic crisis.

In our view, Eastman remains a solid citizen of the region’s business community, creating jobs, adding value to the economy, and promoting regional economic development to drive long-term economic competitiveness for all the cities, towns and counties in northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia.

Perhaps some of the rest of us might take the company’s example and learn to reorient our thinking about the negatives of #2020 to find ways to extract and concentrate on the most useful parts of every day’s experience. To the people of Eastman, congratulations on reaching the milestone of 100 years in business, and Godspeed on your next century’s journey.

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