Eastman is committed to mainstreaming the circular economy. That’s why we’re driving both material-to-material circularity and an alternative economic model. There’s no shortage of plastic to recycle — the world produces 460 million tonnes annually, and less than 10% gets recycled. But securing it all as usable supply poses economic and logistical challenges. We see three main ways companies can help:

Advocate for smart policies

We believe smart public policies don’t prescribe which recycling technologies can or can’t be used, nor do they ban materials not widely recycled today. Policies that limit technologies and materials also limit innovation — and may drive companies to switch to less environmentally preferable materials. Ongoing innovation creates new possibilities, such as increasing recycling efficiency or making a common plastic more easily recyclable. Smart policies can also create demand for more circular materials.

Invest in infrastructure for both mechanical and molecular recycling

We recognize the need to invest up front to ensure waste collection isn’t too expensive. Companies large and small can support well-designed regulatory or industry programs, such as extended producer responsibility (EPR) or bottle deposits that cover costs for collection and infrastructure. They can also support recycled content requirements to drive increased demand.

Companies can also amplify the impact of NGOs with boots on the ground to help communities increase recycling rates. Eastman collaborates with The Recycling Partnership (TRP), which works to increase the collection and sortation of opaque and colored PET plastic.

Innovate to create new supply

This could be a take-back program for your plastic products or packaging, a partnership with companies outside your sector, or a collaboration with local community organizations. Eastman has partnered with Circular Polymers since 2019 to recycle post-consumer carpet. We’re also partnering with Food City, a leading regional grocery retailer, to create employee and consumer recycling drop-offs in Kingsport, Tennessee.

Piles of bundled PET plastic strapping used as feedstock in a recycling plant.

Increasing the demand for recycled content and creating new markets

When the economics work, recycling can be affordable and provide a return on investment, enabling recyclers and materials recovery facilities (MRFs) to operate without subsidies. Economic efficiency and sufficiency make participation in the circular economy possible for more companies and consumers. But supply isn’t the only sticking point. Low or volatile demand can be a challenge too.

While MRFs can collect a broader variety of plastics, including colored and opaque PET and thermoforms, volatile end markets make it difficult to justify the cost of collecting and sorting them.

Yet brands need colored and opaque PET to protect light-sensitive products like dairy. And our world needs brands to use recycled content in more than a few select applications. Molecular recycling can help — so can companies that use both mechanical and molecular recycled material.

For the economics of recycling to work, we need to:

Broaden demand to match MRFs’ supply

Molecular recyclers provide the demand for the supply that MRFs collect. This gives MRFs confidence they will get a return on collecting and sorting materials like colored and opaque PET. If demand expands and outstrips MRF supply, this should drive increased collection and overall recycling rates, reducing waste even further.

At Eastman, we continue to invest in increasing our capacity to process plastic waste through our two molecular recycling technologies. We are investing approximately $2.25 billion in three new recycling facilities: our new facility in Kingsport and planned facilities in France and a second U.S. location. Once in operation, each will initially process upwards of 110,000 metric tonnes of polyester waste annually. We plan to continue expanding the France facility with a second phase that would nearly double its capacity.

Create more opportunities for recycled content

Companies that accept both mechanical and molecular recycled content expand end markets too. Mechanically recycled plastic doesn’t reliably meet performance expectations for certain markets and applications. But molecular recycled content is indistinguishable in quality from virgin plastic. Eastman Cristal™ Renew copolyester provides the clarity and luster expected of packaging for luxury beauty and personal care products, such as the Dior Addict Lip Maximizer. Eastman Tritan™ Renew copolyester is strong and durable, enabling Stanley Black & Decker to create the reviva™ line of power tools made with certified recycled content.

Tell consumers recycling stories that resonate

It’s important that brands tell their recycling story in a way that connects with consumers. At Eastman, our communications and market research teams help our customers understand how to tell the story. We recently collaborated with a major consumer brand to determine how hair care and oral care consumers feel about various recycling-related messages. We want brands to get credit for doing the right thing. When rewarded with increased consumer loyalty and sales, they’ll have even more incentive to participate in the circular economy, driving further demand.

A person using the reviva Black and Decker jigsaw to cut a wood pallet.

Create value from waste

Together, MRFs, brands and companies like Eastman can create measurable economic value from plastic waste. That will help create broad change by increasing recycling rates, increasing recycled content, and reducing the strain on our world’s finite resources.

Plastic is a valuable, versatile material needed by a growing world for countless purposes, but we’re wasting far too much of it. We have the opportunity — now — to build a recycling system for the modern age and ensure a more sustainable future.

Stay tuned for the next article in this series to learn how transparency in the molecular recycling system helps foster demand for recycled content.