KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) — Consumers and companies are ready for the more ecologically sustainable “circular economy” that Eastman Chemical Company says its molecular recycling technology brings to the world of consumer plastics — and now an entire country appears ready, too.
Eastman announced Monday it will spend up to $1 billion to build its second “material-to-material” molecular recycling plant, this one in France.
“They were making the necessary changes to their recycling infrastructure to be able to gather up hard to recycle household waste,” Eastman’s President of Plastics and Circular Scott Ballard, told News Channel 11 Monday about France’s play for hosting a facility.
He said the country wants to be a leader in building a sustainable economy and made the most appealing pitch for Eastman to build a plant outside Kingsport. Eastman announced a year ago it would create its first such plant at its home base, investing $250 million and creating about 90 jobs.
That facility can process about 110,000 tons of plastic waste annually and turn it into a nearly equivalent volume of new products and is on track to be complete by the end of this year.
The company had made its U.S. investment knowing it would have to put lots of extra work into sourcing materials in North America. In the U.S., the single-stream approach to recycling — everything gets tossed into one bin — isn’t as conducive to aggregating the discarded type I plastic currently needed for its processes.
“Shampoo bottles, colored things, cosmetic packages, a lot of different things, they don’t get recycled very well and a lot of that ends up in landfills,” Ballard said. Or in Europe, and particularly France, those plastics are often incinerated and converted to fuel, “and then carbon emissions result out of that.”
When Eastman announced the project it was a bit like a shot heard around the world, Ballard said.
“Eastman’s had this technology and this ability to bring this forward and the world didn’t seem interested and ready for years,” he said. “That’s changed. Consumers want it, companies want it – they want to have a more sustainable environment.”
He said both consumer companies and governments contacted Eastman saying they were interested in the company increasing its capacity. That will certainly be the result in France, where the plant and accompanying “innovation center” should be operating by 2025.
That facility should process about 150,000 metric tons of plastic waste annually, with output of product nearly that high. It’s expected to create 350 jobs and lead to another 1,500 in the recycling, energy and infrastructure sectors.
“The word bureaucracy was invented in France, but we saw very little evidence of it as we worked with the French government … because they were very motivated to try to attract this plant to their country,” Ballard said. “I think President (Emmanuel) Macron is personally passionate about sustainability and trying to improve their situation.”
In this case that required changes to French laws enabling the aggregation of the plastic waste so Eastman could purchase it. The French government also provided some economic incentives “that were making the project more attractive and actually possible to do,” Ballard said. “Those two things were very important in this choice.”
The molecular recycling process basically takes difficult to recycle plastics, prepares them for processing, then reduces them from their current state as polymers — large, synthetically produced chains of simpler molecules called monomers — back to their monomer building blocks.
From there, Eastman can work with those monomers to create plastics for Procter & Gamble, L’Oreal, Estee Lauder and a growing number of end-users who are clamoring for more sustainable packaging.
“Those materials have to be processed to be what we call molecular recycling or methanolysis ready,” Ballard said. “So we’ve got to get them into a certain form so that they can feed into that unit and be broken down into their monomers.”
Eastman calls that the mixed plastic processing phase and Ballard said France showed a commitment to making that as smooth as possible.
Eastman’s Monday news release included comments from France’s minister for ecological transition and its delegate minister for industry. Both spoke of the country’s commitment to, in the words of industry minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher, “position itself as a European leader in new technologies for recycling and recovering plastic waste.”
Ballard said the recycling plant’s end products can be recycled into new ones an infinite number of times using Eastman’s process. Ballard said the company is promoting the creation of “ecosystems” by countries or other governments.
“What we’re trying to do is make it easier for consumers, for governments, make it easier for them to create infrastructure to recycle,” he said. “Because with this technology that waste becomes valuable, we can pay money for this as a feedstock as opposed to them having to pay to dispose of it.”
What about the local ‘ecosystem’?
The move may be fine and good for France, but Eastman’s own hometown of Kingsport recently had to drop its curbside recycling program due to high operational costs. He said Eastman employees already can bring their own plastic waste in to work, where it can become feedstock for the Kingsport facility.
“We are in multiple conversations to create that collection and sortation part that’s necessary,” Ballard said. “We want to do it. It makes perfect sense to do it, especially the city of Kingsport and the situation they’re in, but it takes a little bit of extra work and it’s working with other partners to make it happen.”
Ballard acknowledged that France’s determination to take necessary steps toward this aspect of a circular economy is stronger than the U.S.’s, at least right now. The company has worked to find the feedstock stream in different ways for its Kingsport plant.
“The U.S. doesn’t have currently a way where they take this hard to recycle household waste, aggregate it, sort it and be able to make it available for sale, so it’s not as simple as that in the U.S., but we have a team of professionals working right here in Kingsport, Tennessee to go activate and find this material in different streams in different parts of the region to be able to get it and there’s actually a fair amount of it available.”
Ballard said the U.S. catching up to some other countries requires both political will to change some things at that level, and a cultural shift.
“There’s a different balance of what governments are willing to impose on the public over there,” said Ballard, who lived in Switzerland with his family for several years. “When I lived in Switzerland a tall white kitchen trash bag cost four dollars.”
He said behind that was a desire to incentivize consumers to recycle a maximum amount of their waste. He said his family of five used an average of fewer than two kitchen-sized bags a week. Everything else got recycled, and not into a “single stream” bin, either.
The family would trek to a site near the train station and separate types of material, including different colors of glass, “which makes it easier for the downstream recycling to happen.”
The U.S. uses single stream recycling. If the country stays with that approach, “there’s technology that has to be able to do a lot more of that separation if you’re going to put different types of material in there.
“There are different types of schemes that the country could choose to implement and I believe that some of those will come in in the future. I just hope that they’re intelligently chosen and designed and that the right technologies are available to work with them so that the whole infrastructure works together to create circularity.”
In the meantime, Ballard said he’d love to see people in the region become more aware of what’s happening at Eastman on the sustainability front.
“This is a really cool thing that a lot of people are passionate about and excited about and it really is something to be excited about and proud of for the region. We’re having an impact here, but it’s a global impact.”