Hoping to quell concerns that some new PET bottles are hard to recycle, Eastman Chemical Co. is starting a pilot depolymerization plant that it hopes can provide a cost-effective solution.
Virgin-resin producer Eastman said July 7 it was starting the trial plant at its Kingsport, Tenn., headquarters.
Eastman said the facility will use new technology that will allow it to provide recycled resin at competitive costs.
Cost was a key failing of previous attempts at depolymerization, industry officials said.
Eastman officials would not disclose details of what they say is new depolymerization technology. Officials added that they are at least two years away from commercializing it, if the technology pans out.
The company said it wants to answer questions from recyclers about the impact of these new containers, like beer bottles, that could hurt the growth of PET packaging. Political pressure from legislatures concerned about plastic recycling markets, such as in California, is also a factor, officials said.
``It is good to let the marketplace know that there is technology in the wings that will solve much of the concern,'' said Tom Parham, manager of plastics recycling for Eastman.
``This tells our customers we are working on recycling solutions that will allow them to offer more imaginative designs.''
If Eastman decides to commercialize the technology, the first plant will likely be built in Europe because the bottle stream there is more complex, he said in a July 8 telephone interview.
``It looks like Europe would be a good place to start, but [saying] where and how would be premature,'' he said.
``We're going to learn a lot in the next six months or so,'' Parham said. In the lab, the process has been able to handle all the different-colored PET and all the barrier layers that have been tested, he said.
The process produces food-grade material. Parham said he does not think getting Food and Drug Administration approval would be overly difficult, considering that other depolymerization processes have been OK'd.
Eastman said it is targeting hard-to-recycle PET containers, like beer bottles and juice containers with barriers, so they will not hurt the stream of soda bottles and simpler containers that are recycled mechanically.
``The primary raw material source will be the packaging made from PET that other systems cannot handle,'' Beat Zueger, Eastman's director of global recycling, said in a news release. ``It will help PET become the complete environmentally responsible packaging.''
Eastman's plant depends on getting bottles or feedstock for ``significantly less'' than what recyclers pay for bales now. But Parham said that is reasonable because the company wants the materials that would otherwise be rejected and sent to landfills.
Parham said Eastman expects the project to make money and is not interested in subsidizing it as the polystyrene resin industry had subsidized National Polystyrene Recycling Corp. — putting $85 million into that company — until it was sold earlier this month.
``With industry margins where they are now, our projects have to be profitable,'' he said. ``We feel very good about the project, the technology and the economics. We have to prove it out with the trial.''