In one of the most ambitious chemical recycling initiatives to be announced in the US, Eastman Chemical says it plans to build a $250 million polyethylene terephthalate (PET) depolymerization plant at its Kingsport, Tennessee, complex by the end of 2022.
The plant will use methanolysis technology to break down 100,000 metric tons (t) per year of post-consumer PET waste—from sources such as carpet fiber and PET packaging—into dimethyl terephthalate and ethylene glycol. Eastman will use the monomers to make specialty polyesters such as its Tritan Renew line, which is molded into products like refillable water bottles. Making the resins with the recycled content is 20-30% less greenhouse gas intensive than using fossil fuel-based feedstocks, the company says.
Eastman has been ramping up its recycling initiatives over the past couple of years and aims to recycle more than 200,000 t of plastic annually by the end of the decade. Last year it opened a smaller plant that uses glycolysis to break down PET. Eastman also feeds mixed plastic waste into its gasification plant in Kingsport to make hydrogen and carbon monoxide, feedstocks for acetyl-based products like cellulose acetate.
Methanolysis recycling has a long history at Eastman. About 30 years ago, Eastman Kodak, Eastman Chemical’s former parent company, ran a depolymerization plant that recycled used X-ray film.
At a press conference with Tennessee governor Bill Lee to announce the project, Eastman CEO Mark Costa said the company had long considered reestablishing the methanolysis process in Kingsport.
“A decade ago we were thinking about building this plant,” he said. “It was one of my top projects back then in my prior job. We were starting to do the engineering, but we could not find any market demand that would actually appreciate this value and pay for it.” That changed as public concern mounted over plastic waste and consumer product companies started demanding recycled content.
Costa said he expects the investment will generate a 15% return for Eastman, relatively high for the company’s investments.
Eastman isn’t the only company pursuing PET depolymerization. The Canadian firm Loop Industries, for example, is developing a plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, with 40,000 metric tons of capacity.