This article is sponsored by Eastman.
At Eastman, we’re committed to using sustainable innovation to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges. The 3Rs (reduce, reuse and recycle) don’t work the way they should for plastic. To create a resilient and sustainable future, it is essential that we solve the plastic waste crisis. And current recycling practices do not adequately deal with plastic, a ubiquitous material in our modern world.
The good news is that the problem can be solved. With innovation in technologies and policies, and collaborations between the value chain and policy makers, plastic can become circular.
The current recycling problem
Currently, only 12% of the 300 million tonnes of plastic produced each year is successfully recycled, according to a McKinsey study. Understanding that plastic waste is a major source of pollution, more than 500 brands, governments and other organizations have pledged to dramatically increase their use of recycled materials. But traditional recycling, also called mechanical, cannot on its own meet this kind of demand.
One of the main reasons that so little plastic is recycled is that mechanical recycling is limited to certain types of plastic. Mechanical recycling cannot process the most complex plastic products, such as those in which multiple types of plastic or multiple materials are fused or stacked to create lightweight yet durable packaging. A good example is food packaging which looks like plastic on one side and paper or metal on the other. In addition, traces of food waste on plastic packaging prevent an item from being recycled and it ends up in landfills.
While mechanical recycling should be used and expanded wherever possible, it cannot process the large amount of plastic waste that humans produce. The mechanical process also degrades the recycled material, which means that the plastic loses quality every time it is recycled, which limits its lifespan. We need a way to increase both recycling rates and the longevity of the plastic used so that materials can be reused over and over again. We need to create an infinite loop.
The hasty reaction to ban single-use plastics to deal with the waste crisis may seem understandable, but the unintended result would be to replace plastics with materials that can have even more unsustainable effects, especially when it comes to the weather. Numerous life cycle assessment (LCA) studies conducted by universities, industry associations and leading brands show that plastic has a better carbon footprint than alternative materials due to its efficiency, light weight and of its resistance. The many examples where plastic has an advantage include lightness for electric vehicles, packaging to extend the shelf life of food, films for solar energy and medical applications where durability and sterilization of equipment are essential to preserve human health.
We need to consider the whole ecosystem when making choices and providing society with new technologies that solve both the climate and plastic waste problem while improving the quality of life around the world.
New recycling technologies are needed to maximize the value of plastic
Advanced recycling technologies break down plastic waste into its molecular building blocks and rebuild them into new plastics. These material to material technologies including Eastman’s own advanced forms of recycling can process plastics that mechanical recycling cannot without degrading the quality of the end product. These new technologies complement mechanical recycling by using plastic that cannot be recycled today and turning it into products without compromising on performance. Combined with mechanical recycling, these technologies can create an almost infinite loop, allowing valuable materials to be preserved for longer.
This type of advanced recycling will not only prevent plastic waste from being incinerated, ending up in landfill or worse, ending up as rubbish in the environment, but will also reduce the need to make new virgin plastics with fossil feedstocks, and reduce also our greenhouse gas emissions.
Innovation to solve plastic waste and climate problem is happening today
Solving global issues such as climate change and the problem of plastic waste will require the entire value chain, and material suppliers such as Eastman have a critical role to play. Eastman is a specialty materials supplier focused on delivering differentiated and sustainable products and leveraging our significant scale and integration. This has allowed us to move quickly to bring to market two new technologies that use mixed plastic waste as a raw material, replacing fossil raw materials and producing products without compromising on quality. And these technologies do this while reducing our carbon footprint, supporting our company’s efforts to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, and reducing our carbon emissions by about a third by 2030.
Specifically, Eastman carbon renewal technology can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 to 50 percent in the production of key molecular building blocks of new materials. Likewise, Eastman polyester renewal technology can reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the production of intermediate polyesters by 20 to 30 percent.
We are fully invested in the circular economy and advanced recycling. We have seen strong market adoption by leading brands such as LVMH, Estee Lauder, H&M, CamelBak and Tupperware, who are all committed to using Eastman recycled content in their products. Eastman went from concept to market in less than a year with our advanced recycling platform. We are building a $ 250 million polyester renewal manufacturing plant in Kingsport, Tennessee with mechanical completion in 2022. With this investment, we are committing to recycle 250 million pounds of plastic waste per year by 2025 and more than 500 million pounds per year by 2030.
Eastman is well positioned to lead this effort, but we know we can’t solve this problem alone. We call on others to take an active role in solving the global plastic waste problem, through industry innovation, partnerships and smart policies so that we can renew our recycling system.
Collaboration is the key to solving the plastic waste problem
Technology and politics are closely linked. We need collaboration along the value chain and between business and policy makers so that new technologies can be accelerated towards commercialization to help us all tackle the plastic waste crisis now.
Existing public policies are written with a view to mechanical recycling. In some cases, it is not even clear whether materials produced from advanced recycling would be considered “recycled materials”. Brands want to be assured that recycled content from advanced recycling will be factored into their recycling / recycled content goals and that there will be a constant supply of material for their products. New advanced material-to-material recycling technologies exist to work with mechanical recycling to support these goals, but existing regulations and existing recycling infrastructure hamper their ability to meet market demand for recycled content. For this reason, we need the cooperation of policymakers to reform policies to make them recycling neutral and encourage investment in research and capital to make plastic circularity a reality.
Policy makers can also help communicate to the traditional recycling industry, including its trade associations, that advanced recycling is not a threat to the existing recycling infrastructure. Our goal is not to replace traditional forms of recycling, but to complement them, to save products that cannot be recycled otherwise. We want to pave the way for innovative solutions where everyone wins.
Eastman recently published a white paper that explores these questions, provides background and technical details, and identifies how to improve recycling: “Three ways in which decision-makers can renew the recycling system: The essential link between public policy, advanced technologies and recycling capacity.“I invite you to download it today to better inform yourself about the current recycling crisis and the hope that advanced solutions offer for our future.