ATLANTA – A San Francisco company says it will build the largest plastic waste processing facility in the country outside of Macon, Georgia, a facility that could eventually provide a solution to one of the country’s most visible and urgent environmental problems – plastic pollution .
Marking itself as a company that is transforming the world by finding solutions to environmental challenges, Brightmark plans to convert plastic waste into diesel fuel and chemicals first. The long-term goal, however, is to make new plastic out of old.
If plastic can be made fully recyclable, the giant facility will bring Georgia to the forefront of an industry with high growth potential, which is delighting state and local officials who recruited Brightmark with $ 82 million in incentives.
But some people have their doubts that the company will be as green as it says it is.
Critics say Brightmark creates the illusion of recycling while also providing protection for plastics manufacturers. Efforts to economically recycle used plastic into new plastic on an industrial scale are fraught with problems, it is said. Instead of finding alternatives, plastics manufacturers will continue to pump out tens of millions of tons of their single-use products.
“We’re building an industry that requires us to keep feeding it,” said Jennette Gayer of Environment Georgia group.
The good, the bad, and the ugly
Plastic has been a blessing and a curse to modern life.
It is easy and endlessly malleable. It can be puffed in styrofoam packing peanuts or molded into a medical device that will remain in the body for years. It’s tough enough to store harsh chemicals for decades without breaking down.
But the longevity that makes it so useful makes it virtually indestructible even without intervention.
A half-liter beverage bottle takes around 10 grams of polyethylene terephthalate, commonly known as PET – weighs less than two quarters. This tiny amount is estimated by various environmental, industrial and scientific groups to take between 70 and 450 years to break down naturally, depending on exposure to sunlight and other factors
Recycling might be the answer to the problem, but it is complicated for several reasons. There are seven categories of plastics that differ at the molecular level. Often they cannot be mixed when recycling. And mechanical recycling processes destroy the composition of the plastic and limit its use.
Out of the seven categories, only two types of plastics are easily recyclable and have buyers. There is little market for the rest. Despite the best intentions of environmentally conscious families, most of the plastics that are packed in recycling bins go to landfill.
Another barrier to recycling is that it was cheaper to make new plastic.
That creates a massive problem. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the US produced 35.7 million tons of plastic in 2018 – the amount is increasing every year – but only 9% was recycled. About 5.6 million tons were burned to produce energy, releasing greenhouse gases and toxic gases. And 27 million tons were buried in landfills or ended up in gullies, rivers and oceans.
It’s a problem that affects big cities, small towns, and the businesses whose brands are branded on bottles, styrofoam beer crates, and food packaging that float from the bays of Lake Lanier to the beaches of Tybee Island. Public pressure and fear of regulation have pushed large consumers like Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. to find alternatives and invest in recycling, which has not had much success so far.
Coke invested $ 60 million in a South Carolina facility that wanted to recycle a type of plastic, polyethylene terephthalate, into new bottles in 2009. But Coke eventually parted ways with the troubled business in 2011, which had poor or poor results.
Good intentions and high-tech dreams
Bob Powell, a Georgia Tech Engineer and MBA graduate, founded Brightmark in 2016 on an idea of ââdoing good and doing good by solving environmental problems for a profit.
The company and its partners began designing and operating nine industrial-scale processing plants from Florida to Washington state that collect waste from cow and chicken farms and convert it to natural gas. The gas is sold in local or regional pipelines and the processed waste becomes fertilizer or compost.
The company moved into the plastics industry and built its first processing facility in Indiana last year. It’s a quarter the size of the planned facility in Georgia and will hold approximately 100,000 tons of plastic annually. The Macon facility, which will be built on an industrial site near Middle Georgia Regional Airport and employing more than 100 people, will move 400,000 tons of plastic annually from the region and surrounding states.
Brightmark uses chemical processes to break down plastic. It is one of a growing number of new companies entering this breakthrough, high-tech niche. Others include Loop Industries in Canada, Agilyx in the US, and Nexus Fuels, a smaller Cobb County company funded in part by Cox Enterprises, the parent company of Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Brightmark uses a process called pyrolysis – the heating of plastic waste in a closed container with no oxygen in order to vaporize it. It can mix in all kinds of plastics, thereby solving one of the problems with recycling.
“It’s like a fancy distillery,” Powell said.
The plastic vapor is condensed into an oil. The oil is further refined on site into 20 million gallons of wax and 64 million gallons of low-sulfur diesel fuel and naphtha, which can be used to make gasoline, solvents, or plastic.
“I think we’re on a journey and we’re just getting better,” said Powell. Brightmark’s $ 460 million Georgia facility will keep millions of tons of plastic from ending up in landfills while useful products are being made, he said.
While it’s not recycling in the strict sense, “it’s better than where we are now,” he said.
The oil produced can be made into new plastics, but this industry is at an early stage in the US and Brightmark has no buyer with plans to make plastics. Some European companies are starting to try that. Food company Mondelez International says it will be filling Philadelphia-branded cream cheese into tubs made from recycled plastic by 2022.
Powell said, “When we have a customer, we want to publicly tell the world that we’re going to make plastic out of plastic.”
Stephen Adams, executive director of the Macon / Bibb County Industrial Authority, said construction on the facility should begin next year. Powell said it could take two to three years to complete.
Brightmark has applied for a permit from the State Environmental Protection Department that will allow the company to release emissions – including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, and other pollutants – in compliance with state and federal guidelines.
According to a study that Brightmark paid for, Indiana emissions are roughly what a large hospital would release.
Does not solve the problem
The California environmental group Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives criticized the new processes, including pyrolysis, in a June 2020 analysis.
The processes release toxic chemicals into the air and contribute to greenhouse gases through the generation of fuels. “Instead of limiting production or contributing to the circular economy, chemical recycling offers an excuse to increase the production and disposal of plastic,” the report said.
In the past ten years, companies have failed technologically and economically when they tried to use processes like pyrolysis to manufacture new plastics, it is said. These problems continue to the present day.
Coke made another attempt at finding bottles made from recycled plastic and had a contract with Loop Industries that intended to make them in a similar way. But Coke left the deal last October.
“Loop did not meet the production milestone within the agreement, and it was decided to terminate the framework agreement in 2020,” said Coke spokesman Scott Leith to the AJC.
Late last year, Loop was hit by class action lawsuits from investors alleging the company made false or misleading statements about its work and misrepresented the results of Loop’s proprietary process. The Securities and Exchange Commission also launched an investigation into the company.
A Loop spokesperson told the AJC the company had no comment on the allegations or investigation.
Powell said Brightmark already sells all of the oil it can produce, despite refusing to disclose whether the private company is profitable. It has partners like oil industry giant BP.
Gayer of Environment Georgia said, “This chemical recycling is not really a solution to the plastic pollution crisis we are facing and could be viewed as a distraction.”
She expressed concern about the $ 82 million in incentive Georgia Brightmark has promised to build here, given the novelty of the technology and the unproven market.
Pat Wilson, head of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, said Brightmark has already started up a plant. The department used experts from universities in Georgia to review the industry. Members of the Macon / Bibb County Industrial Authority visited the Indiana facility.
“We really did our due diligence,” he said.
“This is a technology that can transform society’s way of dealing with this massive plastic problem,” he said.
Making fuels from plastic is marginally better for the environment than simply burying it, said David Shonnard, a professor at Michigan Technological University who studies the pyrolysis of plastics.
He said it was doable but optimistic that in five years’ time maybe half of the plastics made in the US could be turned into fuels or new plastics. Big companies are just beginning to grow, like the $ 250 million Eastman Chemical facility in Tennessee that will chemically break down polyethylene terephthalate into building blocks for new plastic. If such plants are successful, it could lead to more plastic recycling.
But the final solution isn’t just a matter of chemistry. The plastic crisis is a “vicious problem,” said Shonard – a scientific term that describes highly complex problems that involve incalculable risks. And to address it, it is necessary to examine social policy, the economy and industrial solutions.
Time will tell if Brightmark and similar companies keep their promises and the young industry gets going.
“The market is probably waiting to see if these are successful or not,” said Shonard.