Deal for used carpet materials to help Eastman ramp up chemical recycling

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KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) – Eastman Chemical Co. announced a partnership Tuesday that will help jump start its chemical recycling program with feedstock from used carpet, but a company leader said Eastman is eager for more sources.

“The key will not be whether or not we can process material, but whether or not we can actually find the raw material, aggregate it and then economically get it to our plant,” Eastman’s chief technology and sustainability officer, Steve Crawford, said. In 2020. Eastman hopes to procure 50 million pounds of waste plastics to use as raw material in its acetyls and copolyester production areas.

Crawford said the company invested in front-end technology that allows those production lines to take everything from carpet waste to consumer plastics labeled 1 through 7. The acetyl line produces textiles, including those used in clothing, and specialty plastics while copolyester is used in the “Tritan” brand plastic common in water bottles and a host of other household goods. Crawford called them “two of our most strategic product lines.”

Tritan copolyester, shown in production here, can now be made at Eastman from waste plastics.

The partner announced Tuesday, Circular Polymers, will separate PET fiber from carpeting at a California facility, “densify” the fiber and ship it by rail to Eastman. Eastman will use its recently developed chemical recycling technology to transform the material into usable feedstock. In addition to replacing fossil-based feedstock, Crawford said the recycling process uses an estimated 30 to 40 percent less energy than the traditional method.

Worth the initial cost: waste plastic top of mind worldwide

Crawford said Eastman is capitalizing on global demand for more sustainable corporate practices — and that the plastic problem tops the list.

Brands such as Coca-Cola, Nestle and Pepsi “feel like this is something they must drive back through their suppliers,” he said. “The market’s demanding it.”

“The brands are making these commitments to their board of directors, to their communities, to their consumers, so it’s a big value proposition to have recycled content overall.”

Carpet America Recovery Effort, a non-profit, reports that more than three billion pounds of carpet was landfilled in the U.S. last year.

Those trends mean Eastman will be seeking other sources as it seeks to use up to 50 million pounds of waste plastic next year in chemical recycling. Eastman also uses mechanical recycling with plastic types 1 and 2, and it’s working to scale up another technology, “methanolysis,” which can essentially “unzip” waste products back to their basic carbon or other ingredients. Eastman hopes to deploy its methanolysis at scale by 2021 or 2022.

Eastman has bet big on the chemical recycling trend. In addition to the research and development and infrastructure costs, it’s paying a premium for waste material over fossil-based “virgin material.” That’s partly because the industry has perfected a fossil-based system and driven costs down, so Crawford expects that gap to narrow.

“We have an aspirational vision to get as high as we can possibly get in terms of replacing feedstock,” Crawford said.

“The more plastic waste we can use, the more we can aggregate it, and especially the more we can use the really low-quality (and thus inexpensive) material, the closer we can get to actually matching fossil feedstock (in cost), which is our ultimate goal.”

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This Eastman-supplied graphic describes the carbon renewal process.

Crawford said Eastman is looking to develop “takeback programs” with some of its strategic customers to supply additional feedstock.

In the meantime, there is plenty of carpet. A non-profit, Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), partnered with Eastman and Circular Polymers to set up the deal and reports that more than 3 billion pounds of carpet was landfilled in 2018 in the U.S. alone.

Less than a year ago, Eastman said it would “prioritize meaningful contributions to the circular economy.” At the company’s Sept. 25 “Countdown to Centennial” event, CEO Mark Costa called the efforts “a huge opportunity … 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.”

Much of the chemical recycling technology operation will occur in Kingsport. “I think as we commercialize these technologies it’s going to enable Eastman to grow disproportionately,” Crawford said. “That will create jobs (and) that allows for better economic development inside our communities.”

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