The recycling industry is evolving. Emerging technologies are creating new opportunities to recover and reuse existing materials like hard-to-recycle plastics. These approaches to recycling vary from mechanical recycling that is familiar to the public and are a promising foundation for a circular economy.
Modern mechanical recycling has been around for more than 50 years. With mechanical recycling, materials such as milk jugs and aluminum cans are placed in the recycling system to be ground or shredded. The shredded materials are then washed and dried before being reprocessed.
It’s a relatively energy-efficient process, but there are shortcomings to mechanical recycling. It accepts limited materials and can only prolong their inevitable end of life because the process downgrades the material — ultimately, creating materials that can no longer be recycled and are destined for the landfill.
Despite these shortcomings, mechanical recycling is an important tool for returning certain materials to the value chain. The system is effective. But to move toward a more circular economy, mechanical recycling should be supplemented with other technologies.
Advanced recycling, often referred to as chemical recycling, is designed to address those shortcomings and is promising great progress for the material industry and, in some cases, true circularity. As the industry defines itself, the terms "advanced" and "chemical" are often used interchangeably, but there are various processes and outputs that fall under the category of "advanced recycling." The most promising for a circular future, however, is molecular recycling — a type of advanced recycling we are exclusively committed to.
Molecular recycling, a term first coined by Eastman, is a material-to-material recycling method that breaks waste down into its molecular building blocks, which are then used to create virgin-quality material. Molecular recycling provides near infinite recyclability, and when certain parameters are met, it’s a powerful solution for enabling a truly circular future for the material industry.
Our six principles for the circular economy outline these parameters and can serve as a guide for the industry and policymakers to help propel closed-loop recycling and reduce environmental and social consequences of the material industry.
These principles can be easily summed up like this: “Reduce, reuse and recycle” is only the beginning. Material-to-material recycling improves quality of life, is a complement to mechanical recycling and should be economically viable and transparent.