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Firms back chemical recycling of plastics

Eastman Chemical is dusting off an old process to handle polyester waste

by Alexander H. Tullo
March 8, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 10


A reaction scheme showing depolymerization.

As pressure builds on chemical makers to solve the plastic waste problem, firms are increasingly exploring chemical recycling as a complement to traditional mechanical techniques.

Eastman Chemical plans to build a facility that will use methanolysis to depolymerize polyethylene terephthalate (PET), used in food packaging and soda bottles, into dimethyl terephthalate and ethylene glycol. The company developed the process decades ago, as Eastman Kodak, to recycle polyester waste such as X-ray film.

Tim Dell, Eastman’s vice president of corporate innovation, is confident the company can build a commercial-scale plant in 24–36 months. “Polyester is one of the chemistries that can be unzipped fairly easily,” he says. “The trick in all of this is to be able to design, engineer, scale, and actually operate a facility.”

Eastman, which makes polyester copolymers, hasn’t decided on a size or location. It is in talks with potential partners to source raw materials. The company is seeking difficult-to-recycle plastics that are unsuitable for mechanical recycling.

In a similar initiative, Loop Industries and the polyester maker Indorama plan to builda plant based on Loop’s PET depolymerization process by 2020. And Aquafil recently opened a facility in Phoenix that recovers nylon from used carpet for later depolymerization.

Seeing such projects as a market, Circular Polymers has opened a plant in Lincoln, California, that will process 14,000 metric tons per year of used carpet into nylon, polyester, and polypropylene. The company aims to provide a reliable feedstock for chemical recycling projects.

“While chemical recyclers can take a higher degree of contamination than mechanical recyclers, they still require a specification,” says Circular CEO David Bender.


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