Rethinking recycling: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Single-stream recycling is here. No more sorting into brightly-colored bins that are then lugged out onto the curb. Just about everything goes into your main trash can - and it won’t cost Berkeley County residents any extra money. If anything, citizens should save money, as paid recycling services to private contractors may no longer be needed.
Welcome to the new age of recycling in Berkeley County.
Almost one year after construction on the new RePower South recycling facility was announced, the plant has officially begun the ceaseless task of sorting trash. While parts of the new facility are still inching towards operability, RePower South is expected to become an invaluable resource for the county in the near future.
Once it is fully operational, Plant Manager Karl Stechmesser said that between 60 and 65 percent of the county’s garbage will be reused, instead of going into a landfill, and RePower South will process 700 tons of trash per day.
“We’re planning on two shifts [every day], so that would be 350 tons per shift,” he calculated. “And the plant has a capacity for about 180,000 to 200,000 tons annually.”
The recycling company signed a 25-year contract with Berkeley County, Stechmesser said, allowing them to deal with 100 percent of the county’s waste treatment in that time. This includes both commercial and residential garbage.
According to 2018’s Solid Waste Management Annual Report, Berkeley County residents dispose of 2.5 pounds of trash per person per day (p/p/d). The statewide goal is 3.25 p/p/d or less, an aspiration that only 22 counties achieved. Across South Carolina, less paper, plastic, and metal were recycled in 2018 than in 2017, but glass recycling saw a continued increase.
From the high amount of recyclable materials that RePower is able to repurpose, then resell, a revenue of $20 to $25 million every year is expected. RePower South Co-Founder and CEO Brian Gilhuly said that Berkeley County will receive a 12.5 percent share of recycling and fuel revenues, after the business generates $10.7 million from recycling and fuel sales per year. Gilhuly added that the sales are broken down by a quarterly basis.
Daniel Island’s garbage disposal is handled through the City of Charleston, which transports trash to the Berkeley County landfill. In the past, those who wished to recycle could do so through Republic Services for a fee. Residents now have the option of cancelling those services.
“The simple answer is that there is no point in keeping Republic Services for recycling,” Stechmesser explained. “But for many ‘hardcore’ recyclers, they don’t believe that mixing all material is a clean enough way to recycle. However, the processes downstream from ours that our customers will use, clean, and refine the raw materials to generate good, reusable materials. I think as time goes on and people realize the truths of what we are doing and how it works and benefits everyone, more and more will cancel their recycling services.”
Stechmesser quickly attempted to put concerns over any other shakeups to rest.
“Essentially, nothing’s changing from a trash pickup service standpoint,” he said. “Whoever’s picking your trash up stays the same. None of that changes. Everything is delivered to our facility once we’re fully operational.”
And thanks to RePower South’s location adjacent to Berkeley County’s landfill where trash is dumped, no trucks will be added to the roads, no routes will change, and no one will be required to change their waste service provider.
The process of sorting through the literal tons of trash is all about filtering the recyclable materials from the rest. But, since this is the year 2019, RePower South uses robotics, artificial intelligence, and infrared scanning, in addition to simple gravity and hand picking trash from a conveyor belt.
“These plants aren’t a dime a dozen,” Stechmesser said while showcasing the machinery. “There’s several of them out there, but with every new facility, there’s a new equipment layout. We’ve got some newer technology here.”
In practice, it looks like an expansive Rube Goldberg machine.
RePower South will also produce a low carbon coal alternative, that is co-fired with coal, called ReEngineered Feedstock. As Stechmesser explained, this will actually help the recycling plant’s profits even out during the traditional ups and downs of the economy. In an average Material Recycling Facility (MRF), “you are at the mercy of the ebbs and flows of the commodity market,” he said. “When China says ‘no more mixed paper,’ it affects the commodity prices, up or down.”
“The biofuel component protects Repower South from the volatility of the commodity markets,” he added.
As noted in a recent article in the Post and Courier, the Coastal Conservation League’s Betsy La Force expressed apprehension over the air emissions caused by the use of this coal alternative.
“The Coastal Conservation League is receptive to new technologies and applauds efforts to potentially recover energy from non-recyclable residuals, but we have concerns with certain emerging technologies,” La Force clarified to The Daniel Island News.
The CCL representative believes that alternative fuel derived from plastic, such as the ReEngineered Feedstock that RePower South will manufacture, is an “imperfect energy source” with environmental risks that should be regulated. La Force also expressed worry about what she believes is a potential culture of wastefulness that such an easy recycling option could create.
“Residents and participants are not required to think about what it is they’re throwing out,” she said.
In a response on their website, RePower South said “even with recycling programs, many individuals simply don’t recycle.”
“Berkeley County is leading the way to recycle more and landfill less,” the statement continued, “becoming one of the leading recyclers in the United States by offering its citizens a simple, comprehensive recycling program focused on recovery and re-use of waste instead of landfilling.”
Glass is a relatively common point of confusion for recycling enthusiasts. According to the South Carolina Department of Commerce’s Recycling Market Development program, “glass is a commodity in SC that has faced market challenges because it contaminates other materials, has low value and high transportation and processing costs.”
For this very reason, RePower South will not recycle glass for the foreseeable future.
“There’s just no market for [glass],” said Stechmesser. “It’s not to say that it never will be and we’ll never pursue that, but at this moment in time it just doesn’t make sense for us to process it. You’ll lose money if you try to reprocess it and sell it.”
If RePower South’s benefits are as apparent as its administration hopes, Stechmesser sees the current plant in Berkeley County as a model for other areas.
“I know the ultimate plan is to expand,” he stated. “There’s a lot RePower South can offer. But, right now, let’s prove ourselves here, show what we can do, show the benefit to the environment.”
BERKELEY COUNTY RECYCLING RATES:
GLASS: 3 tons (2017), 1.83 tons (2018)
METAL: 40,286.21 tons (2017), 8,376.41 (2018)
PAPER: 7,298.92 tons (2017), 4,893.24 tons (2018)
PASTIC: 469.90 tons (2017), 819.33 tons (2018)
CHARLESTON COUNTY RECYCLING RATES:
GLASS: .53 tons (2017), .29 tons (2018)
METAL: 1,787.28 tons (2017), 3,002.67 tons (2018)
PAPER: 15,027.59 tons (2017), 12,589.18 tons (2018)
PLASTIC: 420.95 tons (2017), 431.52 tons (2018)
Source: 2018 DHEC Solid Waste Management Annual Report
WHAT CAN BE RECYCLED AT REPOWER SOUTH?
Regarding plastic bags, RePower South Plant Manager Karl Stechmesser said, “Plastic bags are not technically recycled within our system. However, we do utilize plastic bags and plastic film (caution tape, wrappers, dry cleaning bags, garbage bags, etc.) as feedstock for our low carbon bio-fuel. What this means is that plastic bags are not landfilled.”
To learn more about RePower South’s services, visit www.repowersouth.com.