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May 23, 2019

New Indiana plant could have your trucks and tractors running on plastic bottles, bags and toys

Cars running on electricity are becoming more and more commonplace on the roads. But what about cars running on plastic from milk cartons, grocery bags, Styrofoam cups and even children’s toys? A new plant opening in northern Indiana hopes to make that mainstream, too.

Brightmark Energy broke ground Wednesday on its new facility that will turn plastics into fuel — a facility that will be the first-of-its-kind in the U.S.

This technology is among those emerging to tackle the growing plastics problem around the country and world. And it bills itself as a form of recycling, more specifically a process called chemical recycling.

“We’re taking plastics from communities where people think they’re getting recycled, but often are not, which is a massive environmental problem, and then we can divert them from the waste stream and create value out of them,” said Bob Powell, CEO of Brightmark. “This project is at the beginning of solving one of the biggest environmental problems we have.”

That solution comes through a process called pyrolysis. Despite the name, however, it does not involve burning of the plastics. And because of that, the plant will release very low emissions, Powell said.

Instead, the process uses heat with very low oxygen to turn the plastic into a vapor before converting it back to plastic. From there, it will be made into ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel, and industrial wax to coat lumber, among some other uses. The facility will initially convert approximately 100,000 tons of plastic into over 18 million gallons a year of the diesel and naphtha, a blend stock that has many uses. It also will produce nearly six million gallons of the wax.

The process can take almost any type of plastic, recyclable or not. It will be 93% efficient and will only have a small bit of unusable output — in the form of a non-toxic powder — that can be sent to the landfill.

While several other facilities use the process across the globe, none of them can take such a wide variety of plastics or are able to operate at the scale the Ashley plant will.

“This technology has been a twinkle in the eye for scientists for a long time,” said Jamie Nolan, spokeswoman for the project. “But this is the first plant of this kind in the world that has made it this far.”

Construction is set to begin this summer and is hoped to be completed in 2021. It will be located in Ashley, Indiana, which is northeast of Fort Wayne and has a population of about 980.

Nolan said the project is fully funded “to see it to doors opening.” In April, Brightmark — which is based in San Francisco — closed a $260 million financing package for the plant. That included $185 million in Indiana green bonds, which were underwritten by Goldman Sachs & Co.

Brightmark has also secured agreements with BP to purchase the fuels produced by the facility. A company called AM WAX will purchase the wax.

“This plant and our arrangement is just recognition that this is what the world is demanding of energy providers now,” said Amy McKerns, director of business of development for BP’s Integrated Supply & Trading group. “We need to provide more fuel to meet increasing demand, but we need to do so in an environmentally conscious way.”

More than 12 million gallons of diesel fuel are sold across the U.S. every day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The fuel is used for semi trucks and agricultural equipment, marine transportation and many pickup trucks on the roads.

Powell said the fuel will be sold at market cost, making it competitive at the prices of other diesel that is produced. And that is without any state or federal incentives, he added.

Part of the reason is the availability of plastics to feed into Brightmark’s process, which is from an Ohio-based company called RES Polyflow. The plant will primarily be getting plastics from Indianapolis — including grocery and dry cleaner bags as well as electronic waste — some other areas of Indiana, and Chicago and its surrounding suburbs.

That is just 5% of the available plastics in the area, according to Powell.

That number likely would be even lower if Indianapolis had a more robust recycling program. An IndyStar analysis previously found that Indianapolis is one of the most wasteful big cities in the U.S., the largest without a universal curbside recycling program. As a result, hundreds of tons of recyclable material gets sent to the city’s landfill or incinerator every year.

And the problem is only going to get worse.

The demand for plastics is expected to triple by 2050, according to the Closed Loop Partners, an investment firm that works to advance recycling efforts and create a circular economy. Currently, almost 90% of plastics worldwide ultimately end up in a landfill, incinerator or oceans, according to the group. In the U.S. and Canada, that means more than 34 million tons each year.

Even fewer materials have been recycled since China announced in 2017 that it would no longer accept recyclables from the U.S. because they were too contaminated. That decision has sent many in the recycling industry scrambling to find solutions.

Nolan said facilities and technologies like Brightmark could be one such solution.

“These recyclables only have value if someone wants them, and no one wants them right now,” she said. “So this plant is basically a China replacement market.”

There is an incredible demand for recycled plastics, but present supply meets just 6% of it. A report by the Closed Loop urged stakeholders to invest in innovation around recycling, finding there is an estimated $120 billion worth of revenue potential in North America for plastics and petrochemicals that could be met, in part, by recovering waste plastics.

Powell said Brightmark’s timing of being able to secure its funding and move forward with the project is tied to an inflection point as more people become aware of the “plastics problem.”

While helping to solve the problem on the front end, Powell acknowledged that diesel still is a fuel that is burned and will release emissions. But he said that doesn’t take away from the massive net positive impact this plant will have on the environment.

Besides reducing plastic waste, he said the type of diesel that the Ashley facility will produce is ultra-low sulfur, which is the most environmentally friendly and emits the least. The plant also will require less crude oil to be extracted from the ground to make diesel the traditional way — a process that also is a much greater pollution emitter than chemical recycling.

“That’s the greatest part about this, it is going to take the plastics that are now going to the landfill and use them,” said Karen McEntarfer, Ashley’s town treasurer. “This is going to put Ashley on the map for something really exciting.”

She said the town also is supportive of the roughly 136 full-time manufacturing jobs that will be created and the additional people it will attract to the area. The company has said it will focus on hiring locally.

Brightmark said this plant is only the beginning.

The company hopes to expand, opening additional facilities around other metropolitan areas in the U.S. and other cities around the world. They also are working to be able to adjust the technology in the future to be able to produce new plastics that can be reused endlessly.

“We want it to be even better,” Powell said. “Ultimately where we’re headed with this is to make this a truly circular type of project. This is a global problem and we want to expand globally because the solution applies globally.”

Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email at sarah.bowman@indystar.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters: Join The Scrub on Facebook.

IndyStar's environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.

Article written by Sarah Bowman for the Indianapolis Star.


For more media inquires contact:
Jamie Nolan
jamie@nolanstrategic.com
p. 410-463-9869