KINGSPORT, Tenn.—Eastman Chemical Co.'s molecular recycling program is a key in collaboration to turn the mixed plastics in automotive shredder residue back into auto parts.
Eastman is working with the United States Automotive Materials Partnership and automotive recycler Louis Padnos Iron & Metal Co. as part of a concept study to demonstrate a closed-loop recycling plan intended to "bring circularity into the mainstream."
"Our carbon renewal technology … is able to take waste plastics, including complex polyesters and polyolefins, back to the basic building block. In this case, it's going back to (synthesis gas)," Steve Crawford, executive vice president and chief technology and sustainability officer at Eastman, told Plastics News. "We already have the infrastructure in place to put the molecules back together into our acetyl stream."
Eastman commercialized two recycling technologies in the last two years, including a polyester renewal technology and a carbon renewal technology for mixed plastics like polyolefins that "both directly replace fossil feedstock with waste plastic and have a superior life cycle analysis," Crawford said.
Having commitment from "all parties" in the automotive value chain system makes Eastman "very confident we'll be able to close the circle," he said. "We're bringing every part of the system that is needed … under one scope of work."
USAMP and Padnos "bring the expertise and experience to run the complete program" with Eastman's chemical knowledge, Crawford said. "No one company can do this alone; solving this problem will only occur through partnership."
Padnos sorts through shredder residue to find materials that fit Eastman's carbon renewal technology, which breaks plastic waste down to "basic building blocks," which is then used to produce polymer materials "that have no compromise in quality and performance," he said.
"Our molecular recycling technologies can repeat this process an infinite number of times with no loss in product performance," Eastman said in an emailed statement.
Auto makers will test the materials to their specifications and Tier 1 molders will use Eastman's materials to make parts like decorative trim, floor molding and "top materials" that could be painted, Crawford said.
The program started in July and will run for 12 months. Eastman hopes to continue the program after the group sees results, he said.
"Once that circular loop gets established, we expect to be able to grow it," Crawford said, adding that the goal is to demonstrate it as a "cost-effective, energy-efficient process."
"The strategic objective of the feasibility study is to prove the industry can economically provide a circular solution for waste materials that would otherwise be landfilled," he said. "Beyond the value of the program for the automotive industry, success here would also demonstrate a collaboration model for other industries to leverage.
"We reject the notion that you have to choose between a sustainable future and a growing, profitable business or economy," Crawford said. "As a materials supplier, it is up to us to solve for both."
The company is also working to transport the waste materials in a way that contributes lower greenhouse gas emissions, he said.
"We'll be looking at how to do that in the most efficient manner," he said. "We want to plan for what's next from a generational perspective."
In a July 20 news release, USAMP said it expects to see a "potential for energy savings and reduced overall greenhouse gas emissions while eliminating a significant fraction of the 5 [million] to 7 million tons of ASR generated annually in the United States from landfills."
"Programs like this are critical to establishing a cost-effective pathway for addressing challenges associated with the consumption of ASR back into automotive parts to enable true industry circularity," Steve Zimmer, executive director of the United States Council for Automotive Research, said in the release.
"Our molecular recycling technologies are recycling complex plastic waste at commercial scale now, but technologies alone won't build a circular economy," Crawford said in the release. "It takes work across the value chain by multiple players who are determined to deliver sustainable solutions.
"That's why this project is so exciting. The member companies of USCAR—Ford, General Motors and Stellantis—are accelerating their approach to designing for more sustainable end-of-life solutions," he said. "This project can be a catalyst for circularity within the automotive value stream that addresses both the climate and waste plastic issues and reshapes what we thought was possible."
Eastman Chemical Co. employs approximately 14,500 people globally and serves customers in more than 100 countries. The company had 2020 revenues of approximately $8.5 billion.