Innovative Recyling Facility Offers Promise and Raises Questions

Jan 9, 2020

Conveyor belt at RePower South recycling facility in Berkeley County
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

Imagine a world without recycling bins where what can be repurposed is; and discarded items that are typically left at landfills become fuel.  That's the world RePower South, a new recycling company, wants to build.

"There's a layer of that waste stream that we're taking in and creating a fuel," says a Repower South cofounder and CEO Brian Gilhuly.  "It is renewable, clean fuel that is used by industry and utilities."

The company set up shop nine months ago in a community in need of a new recycling facility, Berkeley County.  There, garbage trucks pick up all the curbside trash from homes, no sorting necessary, and take it directly to RePower South in Moncks corner, adjacent to the landfill.

Initially, the waste is sorted by people.  The company employs 52.  But after that, it goes through  a maze of conveyor belts, bunkers and machines that use artificial intelligence to pick out the recyclable paper, cardboard, plastic, as well as aluminum and steel cans.

RePower South CEO and a co-founder Brian Gilhuly in the recycling facility's control room in Moncks Corner.
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

Robotic arms use suction to sort.  Magnets grip as well, and blasts of air blow what's not wanted into giant holding bins.  It looks and sounds like something dreamed up by Dr. Seuss.

"This machine is an optical sort," says Gilhuly pointing to one of the facility's nine robots.  "It uses a near infrared light spectrum to identify material as it comes across the belt.  It identifies it by its chemical constituency."

Gilhuly says about 25 percent of what comes in can be saved, bundled and sold to companies that can use it.  He says those companies  include Georgia Pacific, International Paper, Indorama, KW Plastics, B&D Metals and NH Kelman.

Recyclables that are bundled at RePower South and ready to be sold.
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

Other papers, plastics and Styrofoam that typically can't be recycled and land in landfills are gobbled up by a machine called the, "Rocket Mill".  They include flimsy film plastics like the cover of a cookie container.  The mill is made up of heavy, metal chains.

"There are eight chains inside each chamber that are spinning around at 600 rpm and just through sheer force, they size reduce and destruct the material," Gilhuly says.

What the mill spits out looks like confetti or something birds would use to make a nest.  Gilhuly calls it a, "fluff". 

He says 30 percent of the waste processed at RePower South becomes this soft mix and is sold to cement plants, power plants and paper mills as fuel.  It's burned alongside coal because Gilhuly says right now there's simply not enough of it to replace fossil fuel.  But he says it can reduce consumption.

The remaining waste, less than half, goes back on garbage trucks and is dumped next door at the landfill.  That includes among other things, diapers and glass.

So called "fluff" bailed and ready to be sold as fuel burned alongside coal

At a time when recycling has become less profitable, RePower South seems like the perfect fix.  In fact, Charleston County, which has  been battered by complaints about its own recycling program, has recently signed on to send some of its recyclables to RePower South while it awaits a new facility.  Plant manager Karl Stechmessser welcomes the business.

"We need more.  I'd say we're running about 75 percent capacity now."

RePower South can process more than 50 tons an hour.  Stechmesser says Berkeley County is delivering nearly 10,000 tons a month.  Charleston County is sending roughly 2,000 for the same time period.

But it's that need for more that worries environmentalists; more paper, more plastic, more Styrofoam, more waste.

Loading dock where trash is initially brought to RePower South and where non-recyclables will leave to be dumped next door at the landfill
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

"The business model of RePower South makes more money with more waste which is ultimately an environmental problem, especially if the end product  is a fuel that requires coal to burn," says Lisa Jones-Turansky with the Coastal Conservation League.

What's more, Jones-Turansky fears if people no longer see what they recycle by separating it themselves in bins, they will consume more and care less.  She's concerned too about continued dependence on coal as well as contamination.

How clean are the plastics, paper and Styrofoam that will ultimately be burned when they've been mixed with waste? 

"We'll be undoing decades of behavioral improvements and people will no longer sort their recyclables." - Lisa Jones-Turansky with the Coastal Conservation League.

"Now we have a single stream where trash and milk and everything is heaped together and then sorted at RePower South," says Jones-Turansky.

Outside RePower South recycling facility in Moncks corner adjacent to the Berkeley County Landfill
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

But Gilhuly insists his fuel is clean.

"This idea that there are somehow harmful elments coming from our fuel into the atmosphere is just completely false," he says.  "It doesn't happen."

Gilhuly adds, "Being new you have to be better."

But that newness, perhaps, is what troubles environmentalists the most.

"We're not saying there isn't a role for RePower South to play," says Jones-Turansky.  "I think right now it's an unproven technology."

She troubled people will see RePower South as a quick fix and she's uncertain about its longevity.

"While we wait to see if they can make money on this venture, we'll be undoing decades of behavioral improvements and people will no longer sort their recyclables," says Jones-Turansky.  "Potentially the business could go under and we'll be back at square one."

But RePower South doesn't see that happening.  The company has opened another facility in Alabama.