Eastman volunteers help establish pollinator gardens that benefit the ecosystem.

For weeks throughout spring, dozens of people — young and old — converged on a Kingsport, Tennessee, elementary school after classes with garden tools and donated their time for a common purpose.

They were determined to turn a nondescript field into something beautiful and priceless for biodiversity: a 2,100-square-foot pollinator garden.

By the end of May, the team declared success. Washington Elementary School is now home to a garden featuring plants like milkweed, bee balm, black-eyed Susan, spicebush, cone flowers and many others. 

“A beautiful thing about this is that so many people came together and did something we can all be proud of,” Eastman engineer Neil Brown said. “We set out to do something that would be beautiful to look at, have a big impact and provide the benefit of education too.” 

Why it’s important

This is the third school pollinator garden Brown has coordinated in partnership with Keep Kingsport Beautiful, a local affiliate of the Keep America Beautiful program. The effort’s origin ties to Eastman’s molecular recycling and a few big trees in its manufacturing plant.

Pollinators are so vital to human life that they get their own week (National Pollinator Week is June 19–25). Pollinators include a broad range of animal species, from insects like butterflies, moths and bees to bats — and even some birds. Pollinators need pollinator gardens and wild habitats for food and to reproduce. In turn, those species pollinate the countless plants that produce much of the food we eat and contribute to some of the medicines we use.

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Establishing pollinator gardens in his hometown of Kingsport is a mission for Brown, who works with the Eastman life cycle assessment team and is an expert contributor to the company’s climate strategy.

As former chair and current volunteer member of the Keep Kingsport Beautiful Council, Brown pulls in gardening volunteers from throughout the community and recruits heavily from his Eastman colleagues: “Fortunately, there are so many people at Eastman who are volunteer oriented and want to get out and make an impact.”

The Eastman circular economy connection

Back in 2018, Peter Miller and Richard Bonner faced a conundrum. These Eastman leaders were charged with getting a pilot plant built for methanolysis, an Eastman molecular recycling technology that can help revolutionize recycling and curb the global waste crisis. Construction space was tight. 

“Really, the only choice we had inside the plant meant taking down a few large trees,” Miller remembered.

Their affinity for environmental stewardship made it difficult for the project team.

“It was a tough choice to take down the trees,” Miller said, “but the methanolysis pilot plant is a critical part of our sustainability mission, and we had no other choices for location. So we committed as part of the project that we would replace the trees elsewhere.”

Eastman allocated funding to plant a large stand of trees along the South Fork of the Holston River, not far from the pilot plant. Brown and a large team of Eastman volunteers readied for action. Then the pandemic hit. 

“It basically brought the tree planting project to a standstill,” Brown said.

Eventually, the make-good project morphed into something else. The team received permission to reallocate the funds toward something slightly different but still a benefit to the ecosystem: pollinator gardens at Kingsport schools Lincoln Elementary, Washington Elementary and Kennedy Elementary, which is next up.

Brown said he has a vision for gardens at every Kingsport school. He knows he can count on the volunteers.

“Biodiversity is sort of like the health of an ecosystem and should be viewed as a regional or local issue, so changes you make locally and regionally can have a huge impact on where you live,” Brown said. “It’s one of those rare opportunities for us to come together and make a difference that we can feel and experience together. Plus, we’ve all heard the science about how being in nature for ‘X’ number of hours and sticking your hands in the dirt has psychological benefits — but there’s also the building community piece. When you’re standing next to somebody sweating, pushing dirt around, it just helps build collectiveness and community.” 

For Miller, knowing students will get hands-on learning about biodiversity through new pollinator gardens eases the sting of seeing those trees go.

“I didn’t feel great about those trees,” Miller said, “but if it gives students some enjoyment and an opportunity to have hands-on learning about sustainability and biodiversity, it’s a win-win.”