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How Eastman is Creating a Circular Path for Complex Plastic Waste

Plastic waste is a well-documented problem, but one of the reasons post-consumer plastic is piling up in landfills is the challenge of recycling complex polymers. Tennessee-based specialty materials company Eastman has developed a solution for repurposing these hard-to-recycle plastics into new materials, including textiles.

Following the development of a process to upcycle polyester waste that can’t be put through mechanical recycling methods, Eastman’s carbon renewal technology is taking a similar approach to broader polymer waste that previously proved incompatible with conventional repurposing procedures. The technology modifies the front end of Eastman’s cellulosic and acetyls production process, allowing plastic waste to be used as feedstock. This waste is converted into simple molecular components that can become the building blocks for new materials.

“The beauty of the carbon renewal technology that we’re bringing to market is that it can take these complex plastics and create a recycled stream for them, where before there was nothing available for that,” said Ruth Farrell, global marketing director of textiles at Eastman.

Along with being able to recycle complex plastics, Eastman’s solution also allows for processing of mixed streams of plastic waste, whereas conventional recycling requires pure streams. In line with this, Eastman is prioritizing sourcing diverse plastic waste that cannot be processed through other recycling methods. For instance, one of Eastman’s partnerships is with Circular Polymers, a company that reclaims polyester carpeting and turns the waste into PET pellets.

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When it launched the carbon renewal technology in 2019, Eastman planned to rescue 25,000 tons of plastic in the first year. Going forward, there is also the potential to grow beyond that initial target as the company aims to make recycled materials accessible by leveraging its size.

“We have the potential to really deliver this at a high scale, and that actually does move the needle,” said Farrell. “So we in the textile business really do want to make sustainability and circularity possible to all.”

According to Farrell, the components created from the plastic waste are identical to those from virgin sources, making the quality consistent and indistinguishable from fibers made of non-recycled raw materials.

Along with tackling waste, Eastman has been focused on limiting the carbon footprint of this endeavor, making sure none of the new technology introduced is going to raise its environmental impact.

This focus on reducing Eastman’s environmental impact previously led the company to launch Naia, a cellulosic acetate yarn made out of wood pulp sourced from sustainably managed forests and plantations. The biodegradable fiber’s production uses low carbon and water, and leverages a closed-loop manufacturing process to recycle solvents.

While the carbon renewal technology is currently focused on plastic waste, Eastman has plans to extend the process across its entire portfolio, including using it for textile recycling.

Even though Eastman and its peers are making investments in sustainability, it’s going to take support and collaboration from the rest of the supply chain to build and accelerate progress in circularity.

“We need to build education and awareness, in particular at the consumer level, to drive the value chain that can deliver sustainable solutions like this solution to scale,” Farrell said. “Without that market demand and without that push on the need for solutions like this, these solutions will never get to the level that they should and need to get to really to drive sustainability in fashion and indeed other industries.”

What’s the most important issue the fashion industry has yet to address?

“The contribution it’s having to carbon footprint and climate change. The fact that the fashion sector is responsible for 8 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gases is a figure that we just can’t ignore. And global consumption just continues to grow. If we are going to continue to enjoy fashion as we do today, we’re going to have to develop solutions at scale.”

Sourcing Journal’s Sustaining Voices celebrates the efforts the apparel industry is making toward securing a more environmentally responsible future through creative innovations, scalable solutions and forward-thinking initiatives that are spinning intent into action.

See more of our Sustaining Voices honorees and their stories, here.