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A look inside the quest for endlessly circular plastics

The Eastman chemical plant in Kingsport, Tennessee, appears to be just another chemical manufacturing facility. Sprawling over 900 acres are hundreds of buildings and countless miles of pipes, conveyors, distillers, cooling towers, valves, pumps, compressors, and controls. It doesn’t exactly look or feel particularly noteworthy. But something extraordinary is going on at this Eastman chemical plant: two breakthrough processes to turn waste plastics of all kinds back into new plastics, continuously, with no loss of quality.

Last year, the company announced two major initiatives, which provide a glance into the possibilities of circular plastics.

Carbon renewal technology (CRT): This technology breaks down waste plastic feedstocks to the molecular level before using them as building blocks to produce a wide range of materials and packaging. The company claims this enables waste plastics to be recycled an infinite number of times without degradation of quality.

Polyester renewal technology (PRT): Here we see waste polyesters from landfills and other waste streams being transformed into raw material that the company claims are indistinguishable from polyester produced from fossil-fuel feedstocks.

With both CRT and PRT, hard-to-recycle plastics can be recycled an infinite number of times, says Eastman, creating products that can claim high levels of certified recycled content — a true closed loop. Both technologies are or will be hitting the market, so it is too soon to call them a success.

Still, they represent a story about a legacy industrial company seeking to reinvent itself by simultaneously addressing the climate crisis, the scourge of plastic waste, and the need to accelerate resource efficiency to meet the material needs of 10 billion people by mid-century. If it works, this old-line corporate icon could find itself a leading light in the emerging circular economy.

For a deep dive into Eastman’s moonshot goal, have a look at this long read from GreenBiz writer Joel Makower.

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