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Circular Solutions For Transforming The PET/Polyester Ecosystem

Circular Solutions For Transforming The PET/Polyester Ecosystem

by ESG Business Institute -
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Eastman is a leader in creating a circular economy to address the world’s plastic waste crisis in the advanced materials industry. In partnership with Systemiq, Eastman just released a report outlining six priority actions needed to transform the PET/polyester system in Europe, which include reversing the high-consumption business models in fast fashion.

I had a chance to connect with Eastman’s Sandeep Bangaru, Vice President of Circular Platforms, and one of the steering team members for the report. Sandeep has been at Eastman for ten years where he leads a team that works every day to revolutionize recycling and transform the future of plastic waste.

Our conversation comes at a critical time as the industry grapples with finding scalable, innovative solutions to address the global plastics crisis and climate change, on the main stage at this Climate Week at the United Nations General Assembly.

During our conversation, Sandeep provides a deep dive into the findings within the report and technological solutions that are making great strides in promoting a circular economy.

Christopher Marquis: You recently worked with Systemiq, a well known B Corp, on a report that says systemic changes to the plastics industry could triple the recycling rate of PET/polyester to 67% in Europe.

Sandeep Bangaru: An immediate first step is to acknowledge that the PET (or polyester) system across packaging and textiles is largely not circular today. More than three-quarters of polyester put on the market leaves the system as waste and is not recycled.

However, due to PET’s molecular structure, it lends itself well to both being mechanically recycled and advance recycled. Therefore, the PET system specifically has a unique opportunity to make a massive step change improvement towards full circularity. This report shows that implementing reduce and reuse actions in specific areas is needed but insufficient to address the plastic waste issue and drive more circularity. Embracing and scaling both advanced recycling and mechanical recycling is needed to effectively and efficiently address more types of plastic waste. By doing so we can reduce total emissions from the PET system by more than 50% or more than 17 million tons of CO2 emissions per year. But we need clarity of policy right now. Policy that acknowledges the need for the above range of tools will help to accelerate investment in improved collection, sortation, advanced recycling and mechanical recycling.

Marquis: What is the role of advanced recycling in these recommendations, and how could it implement the endemic issues of waste in the fast fashion industry?

Bangaru: Eastman’s advanced recycling technology for polyesters is a pathway to reclaim waste streams that are hard-to-recycle in the current mechanical recycling infrastructure. Hard-to-recycle includes materials like trays, colored and opaque packages, and a range of textiles and fibers. By transforming hard-to-recycle waste streams into virgin quality monomers and then back into high-quality polymers, advanced recycling technology enables brands to use higher levels of recycled content without compromising performance across multiple applications, including food and medical packaging and fashion applications. By uniquely enabling this circularity in the fashion industry, advanced recycling offers a means of redirecting discarded garments and production waste from landfills or incineration and rather get them back to virgin-grade fiber.

Marquis: Can you provide an example(s) of how Eastman is working with brands to promote circularity in the fashion industry?

Bangaru: Eastman is actively collaborating with several brands to promote circularity in the fashion industry, including H&M, Patagonia, Reformation, Lafayette 148, and Gap. These brands have incorporated Eastman's Naia™ Renew into their product portfolios. Naia™ Renew is a sustainable fiber that consists of certified recycled content and biobased content. By using Naia™ Renew, these brands are contributing to circularity by reusing materials that would otherwise be discarded, reducing waste, and preventing pollution of air and water.

Additionally, Eastman is engaged with other large, global clothing brands to drive circularity in polyester products. These brands are exploring recycling options for the 1/6 of textiles that are lost as production waste as well as implementing a post-consumer takeback program. This program aims to collect end-of-life materials, diverting them from managed and unmanaged landfills and instead funneling them to advanced recycling to bring them back into the circular economy.

Marquis: If US policy leaders and business enterprises implemented similar measures here, what do you see as the implications or outcomes?

Bangaru: Implementing similar measures in the United States would have several beneficial outcomes:

Environmental benefits: Similar measures would help reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills and promote recycling and circularity. The U.S. recycling rate for PET is less than 30%, which is even lower than the EU recycling rate of around 50%. There is a significant opportunity to improve recycling rates, and this would result in a significant decrease in carbon emissions and resource depletion, leading to a healthier environment.

Economic opportunities: The implementation of these measures would create new economic opportunities. The recycling industry would expand, creating jobs and stimulating economic growth. It would also lead to the development of new technologies and innovations in waste management and recycling processes. As an example, the Systemiq report indicates that by implementing aggressive circularity actions, 28,000 jobs could be created by 2040.

Improved resource efficiency: By adopting circular economy practices, the United States would be able to maximize the use of finite resources. This would result in more efficient and sustainable use of materials, reducing the need for extraction and minimizing environmental impacts.

Alignment of recycling practices: Implementing similar measures would harmonize recycling practices across different states and regions. This would eliminate confusion and inconsistencies in recycling regulations, making it easier for businesses and consumers to understand and participate in recycling initiatives and thereby driving improved corporate and citizen behavior toward sustainability.

Increased awareness and consumer behavior change: The implementation of these measures would raise awareness among consumers about the importance of recycling and circularity. As a result, consumer behavior may change, leading to increased recycling rates and a more responsible approach toward waste management.

Overall, adopting similar measures in the United States would bring about positive environmental, economic, and societal outcomes, leading to a more sustainable and resource-efficient future.

Marquis: What technologies are critical to recycling and transforming PET/polyester for high circularity?

Bangaru: To transform PET/polyester recycling for high circularity, several technologies are essential. First, the combination of mechanical and advanced recycling is critical in broadening the palette of recyclable materials. Advanced recycling can process hard-to-recycle materials that mechanical cannot. Unlike mechanical recycling, materials made with advanced recycling do not degrade in quality over time or cycles and therefore can provide the system with the needed “recharge” of virgin-like material. Additionally, advancements in sortation and aggregation technology can provide improved yields and bring more recyclates to the proper recycling technologies.

Marquis: What is the biggest obstacle to achieving a truly circular economy, especially in the textiles industry?

Bangaru: A step change improvement can be made by scaling advanced recycling projects in various regions. Mechanical recycling technology is unable to efficiently recycle the textile and fiber stream back into high-quality fibers and textiles. Therefore, new recycling technologies are needed right away, and doing so will provide a nice improvement in circularity. As a next step towards full circularity, we need to transform the business model to embrace circular principles. This requires considering various aspects, including product design, production processes, usage expectations, consumer education and infrastructure investment. In terms of product design, selecting fibers, fabric construction, and dye choices that are compatible with circularity principles is critical. This involves using materials that can easily be recycled or biodegraded and designing products for longevity and durability to expand their lifespan. Finally, implementing end-of-life options including takeback or trade-in programs, combined with consumer education will play a vital role in closing the loop in the textiles industry.

Marquis: How will Eastman continue to move forward with its commitment to circularity, even as global leaders struggle to come to the table with systemic solutions?

Bangaru: Sustainability is integral to our strategy, driven by innovation and focused always on people. Eastman has the responsibility and opportunity to lead, joining others to address climate change by mainstreaming circularity as an economic model. To fulfill this commitment, we expect to invest approximately $2.25 billion in methanolysis facilities for polyester recycling around the globe. The first plant is slated to come online this year, and two additional facilities have been announced in Europe and North America. These plants will expand the availability of virgin-quality recycled content around the world. We also continue to expand our Carbon Renewal Technology offerings and compostable materials products. We are committed and working to continue exploring additional circular feedstocks to displace fossil-based inputs to our processes.