ASHLEY, Indiana—The bales, bundles and bins of plastic waste are stacked 10 feet high in a shiny new warehouse that rises from a grassy field near a town known for its bright yellow smiley-face water tower.
Jay Schabel exudes the same happy optimism. He’s president of the plastics division of Brightmark Energy, a San Francisco-based company vying to be on the leading edge of a yet-to-be-proven new industry—chemical recycling of plastic.
Walking in the warehouse among 900 tons of a mix of crushed plastic waste in late July, Schabel talked about how he has worked 14 years to get to this point: Bringing experimental technology to the precipice of what he anticipates will be a global, commercial success. He hopes it will also take a bite out of the plastic waste that’s choking the planet.
“When I saw the technology, I said this is the sort of thing I can get out of bed and work on to change the world,” said Schabel, an electrical engineer.
“My job is to set it up and get it running,” he said of the $260 million, 120,000 square foot building and adjacent chemical operations. “Then perpetuate it around the world.”
But the company, which broke ground in Ashley in 2019, has struggled to get the plant operating on a commercial basis, where as many as 80 employees would process 100,000 tons of plastic waste each year in a round-the-clock operation.
Schabel said that was to change in August, with its first planned commercial shipment of fuel to its main customer, global energy giant BP. But a company spokesman said in mid-August that the date for the first commercial shipment had been pushed back to September, with “full-scale operation…extending through the end of the year and into 2023.”
Even with that new timetable, the plant, located along Interstate 69 in the northeast corner of Indiana, Brightmark faces ongoing economic, political and—environmental critics and some scientists say—technical headwinds.
Its business model must contend with plastics that were never designed to be recycled. U.S. recycling policies are dysfunctional, and most plastics end up in landfills and incinerators, or on streets and waterways as litter.
Environmental organizations with their powerful allies in Congress are fighting against chemical recycling and the technology found in this plant, known as pyrolysis, in particular, because they see it as the perpetuation of climate-damaging fossil fuels.
“The problem with pyrolysis is we should not be producing more fossil fuels,” said Judith Enck, a former regional director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the founder and executive director of Beyond Plastics, an environmental group. “We need to be going in the opposite direction. Using plastic waste as a feedstock for fossil fuels is doubling the damage to the environment because there are very negative environmental impacts from the production, disposal and use of plastics.”
The global plastics crisis is well documented with annual plastic production soaring from 20 million metric tons to 400 million metric tons over the last five decades. Nearly all are made from fossil fuels and much is designed to resist biodegradation and can last in the environment for hundreds of years, increasingly as microscopic bits that are ubiquitous and have invaded the human body.
The amount of plastic discharged into the ocean could reach up to 53 million metric tons per year by 2030, or roughly half of the total weight of fish caught from the ocean annually, according to a December report by a committee of scientists with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
The U.S. produces the most plastic waste in the world, nearly 300 pounds per person in a year, the report found. But only a small percentage, less than 6 percent, of plastics used by consumers in the U.S. actually get recycled, a recent analysis of EPA data by Beyond Plastics and the Last Beach Cleanup found.
What does get recycled, such as soda bottles, typically goes through a mechanical process involving sorting, grinding, cleaning, melting and remolding, often into other products. But there are limits to the kinds of plastics that are acceptable for mechanical recycling and how many times these plastics can be re-used in this way.
Chemical recycling, called advanced recycling by the chemical industry— which touts it as almost a Holy Grail of solutions—seeks to turn the harder-to-recycle kinds of plastic waste back into plastics’ basic chemical building blocks. Pyrolysis is among the chemical recycling technologies getting the most attention, with industry representatives saying pyrolysis can turn mixtures of plastic waste into new plastic, fuel or chemicals for making everything from detergents to cars to clothing.
With these plastic wastes, such as grocery bags, cups, lids, containers and films, the industry claims, pyrolysis heats them at high temperatures in a vessel, with little or no oxygen and sometimes with a chemical catalyst, to create synthetic gases, a synthetic fuel called pyrolysis oil, and a carbon char waste product.
It’s a process that’s been around for centuries, used for making tar from timber for wooden ships in the 1600s, for example, or coke from coal for steelmaking in the last century.
Brightmark describes its plant as the “largest-scale pyrolysis facility in the world.” It is designed to take plastic waste hauled in from municipal and industrial sources. The waste is cleaned, chopped up and pressed into small pellets, then fed into pyrolysis tanks and heated by burning natural gas. The synthetic gas created by the pyrolysis process is then mixed with the natural gas to generate temperatures between 800 degrees and 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, Schabel said.
“We flush the molecules out and condense them,” Schabel said, describing what the high heat does to the plastic waste. “We are hitting them with a thermal hammer to break them into pieces. They want to come back together but we control how they come back together.”
The char is sent to a landfill as non-hazardous waste, he said, and the pyrolysis oil goes to a small-scale refinery behind the warehouse, where it’s separated into low-sulfur diesel fuel, flammable liquid naphtha, and wax for industrial uses or candles.
“We call this a hyper-local oil well,” Schabel said on the tour.
But a lot of what comes into the plant gets lost in the process.
In a document Brightmark filed in December with the EPA, the company acknowledged that just 20 percent of the plant’s output is its primary product—what it described as fuels. Most of the rest, 70 percent, is the synthetic gas that the company said is combusted with natural gas to generate heat, with 20 percent of that syngas burned away in a flare. The rest is the char, according to the filing.
The company now disputes its own numbers, with a spokeswoman saying company officials are working to get them corrected to reflect a larger percentage of output as diesel fuel or naphtha.
But the EPA filing plays into one of the sharpest criticisms of pyrolysis—that it’s not really plastics recycling at all.
With pyrolysis, “what you make is what I would call, and I grew up in New Jersey, so forgive me, a dog’s breakfast of compounds,” said University of Pittsburgh Professor Eric Beckman, a chemical engineer with a Ph.D. in polymer science. “It’s like everything you can think of, gases, liquids, solids,” he said.
If plastic waste could be turned only into naphtha, a bonafide building block for plastics, a company could operate what Beckman called a closed loop, and circular system for plastics that could be considered recycling, he said. But that is not what pyrolysis does.
“And this is where it gets controversial,” Beckman said, adding: “because you have people doing this who are saying, ‘We’re recycling it.’ No, you’re not. You’re burning it.” And any time that fossil fuels are being burned, he said, they are emitting greenhouse gas and air pollutants.
Jan Dell, a chemical engineer who has worked as a consultant to the oil and gas industry and now runs The Last Beach Cleanup, a nonprofit that fights plastic waste, agreed.
“The fact that pyrolysis operations have to burn so much of the material to get to the high temperatures is a fundamental flaw,” she said.
EPA Rules Under Review
Brightmark and its expansion plans come as the Environmental Protection Agency weighs how to regulate pyrolysis, with air quality and economics on the line.
EPA regulations now consider pyrolysis to be incineration, which brings tighter clean-air controls. But in the waning months of the Trump administration, EPA proposed an industry-friendly rule change that stated that pyrolysis is not combustion and thus should not be regulated as incineration.
“The appropriate regulation of this is really critical if you want to scale advance recycling, and you want to use more recycled material in your products,” said Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council, a leading lobby for the plastics industry.
Facilities that turn plastic waste into gas and then burn the gas to help generate heat for the pyrolysis process are in effect still burning the plastic, with at least some oxygen involved in both steps in the process, said attorney James Pew, director of the environmental group Earthjustice’s clean air practice.
“The absolute crux of this issue is whether these new incinerators have to put on controls, like with conventional incinerators, or whether they can skip that and not control or monitor their pollution,” said Pew.
Pressure is mounting on EPA, which, according to a spokeswoman, is gathering public input and still deciding its next steps for pyrolysis and a related technology known as gasification. In mid July, 35 lawmakers including Rep. Jamie Raskin, and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Corey Booker, wrote to the EPA, urging the agency to fully regulate plastic chemical recycling’s emissions and to stop working to promote the technology as a solution to the plastics crisis.
“Chemical recycling contributes to our growing climate crisis and leads to toxic air emissions that disproportionately impact vulnerable communities,” the lawmakers wrote.
Struggling to Meet Its Timetable
At the end of July, Brightmark Chief Executive Officer Bob Powell, in a Zoom interview from his San Francisco office, said the company was still working to iron the last kinks out of its system.
“We have operated it at startup levels,” Powell said. “We’re just now at the point where we’re mechanically complete, and we’re starting to … create those finished products.”
Groundbreaking was in 2019, after the company secured a $260 million financing package that included $185 million bonds through the Indiana Finance Authority, underwritten by Goldman Sachs. Authority officials said the financing is not a state debt and Brightmark will be entirely on the hook to repay them.
The company has struggled to meet its timetable, Schabel acknowledged on the tour of the plant. He said it has taken time to secure an optimal stream of plastic waste for which there was no market, deal with delays caused by the Covid pandemic and navigate the challenges of developing new technology.
Dell said she’s not surprised, adding that she believes that despite the overall abundance of plastic waste on the planet, securing a steady stream of the kind of plastic waste the company has targeted will be an insurmountable challenge. The company has said it will largely recycle mixed, post-consumer plastics, the kind that millions of Americans toss in their recycling bins every week.
But these wastes are made of many different kinds of plastics, with a range of chemical compositions, and they vary by city and season, she said. Some of the plastics harm the pyrolysis process by introducing oxygenated molecules which reduce yield and lower the quality of the pyrolysis oil output, she said.
Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, common in consumer product labels, films and packaging, adds chlorine atoms that can cause equipment corrosion and contaminate the pyrolysis oil, she said. Household plastic waste from municipal waste-handling facilities is also contaminated with other garbage that upsets the pyrolysis process, including liquids, food, dirt, paper, glass, metal and polystyrene foam, Dell added.
“There’s this perception that there’s so much plastic waste in the world and in the country, which there is,” Dell said. “And then they hold up this magic plant that they say is going to recycle everything from households all mixed together, and people believe it. But it can’t. It can’t handle the changing variety of household plastic waste and the unavoidable contamination.”
Beckman, the University of Pittsburgh professor, said he was particularly surprised to see the company plans to accept PVC.
“I do not know how they’re taking in PVC, and not getting something you really don’t want,” he said. That could include dioxins or other possible unwanted chlorinated products and more char, he added.
The EPA considers dioxins to be persistent organic pollutants, highly toxic and potentially cancer-causing.
“There have been people who have looked at this in different ways over the years, asking, ‘What can we do?’ And honestly, what you can do is make sure (PVC) never goes into a pyrolysis unit,” Beckman said.
For his part, Schabel acknowledged taking in mixed plastic wastes can be a challenge but said they can all be handled by the company’s technology, which he described as proprietary. He declined to go into specifics about the proprietary nature of the company’s technology, which was developed by RES Polyflow, the Ohio company he served as chief executive officer before joining Brightmark.
He said the plant can process PVC, but added: “If we pull out more of it, we get a better yield.”
‘Greenwashing Up the Wazoo’
The company, which is also developing manure-to-gas projects across the United States, markets its Ashley plant as a “plastics renewable facility” in an effort to try to position itself as a green solution to global plastics and climate crises. For the Ashley plant, it commissioned a study known in the industry as an “environmental lifecycle analysis” from consultants at Environmental Clarity, Inc.
The report found that, when compared to a typical waste stream in the United States where 17 percent of plastic waste is incinerated, the Brightmark pyrolysis plant produces 39 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than equivalent products made from virgin materials.
The study’s carbon footprint analysis may be true, said Terrence Collins, a professor of green chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University and director of the CMU Institute for Green Science. But he said there are too many assumptions built into the study for him to know for sure.
The study was also silent on many other potential environmental impacts that are often included or should be, in any lifecycle analyses of an industrial process, Collins said.
Its biggest flaw, Collins said, was to give short shrift to the plant’s potential environmental impacts from toxic chemical emissions, including dioxins and common additives to plastics that are known to be endocrine disruptors. Those are hormone-mimicking chemicals that, once inhaled or consumed, can cause reproductive and developmental problems in fetuses.
“I did not see a single measurement for dioxin, or even talking about it,” in the report, he said. “You don’t find endocrine disruption as a term. You don’t find health” mentioned, he added.
“It’s greenwashing up the wazoo,” Collins said of the incomplete lifecycle analysis, combined with how Brightmark markets itself on its website using the children of one of its engineers using plastic toys and talking about the need to stop ocean-dumping of plastics.
“They are proposing to go into a regime of more sustainability technology, and they should be held to task,” Collins said. They are “creating a case for no toxics without the science,” and “having it done by a little kid whose generation will be impacted. If you market through children, you raise the stakes; you really need to prove it,” Collins said.
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In an email, Environmental Clarity’s Evan Griffing, co-author of the lifecycle analysis, said the study’s scope was established by Brightmark.
“Dioxin production in incineration and pyrolysis is certainly a well-known danger,” he said. Dioxin production can be reduced by controlling the temperature of pyrolysis and removing chlorine. The lifecycle analysis mentioned that Brightmark used scanning technology to minimize PVC getting into its pyrolysis system, he said.
Griffing and the study’s other co-author, Michael Overcash, defended their work and the company’s plans in a joint statement in a press release in November.
“Brightmark’s plastic renewal technology reduces fossil fuel extraction, reduces landfill and incineration of waste, and cuts down carbon emissions relative to current practice,” said Griffing and Overcash. “We believe efforts to scale advanced plastic recycling technologies like Brightmark’s solution will provide substantial environmental and sustainability benefits to society.”
But numbers contained in the lifecycle analysis further strengthened the criticism that the company isn’t really recycling plastic. In its analysis, the study shows that just 16 percent of the plastic waste entering the plant and just 20 percent of what enters the pyrolysis process after sorting, would actually be converted to naphtha, the plastics feedstock.
Regardless, “the benefit of this technology is substantial compared to the current fate of the majority of post-use plastics,” said Chrystal Boone, a Brightmark vice president.
Is Chemical Recycling Possible?
From questions about what should be considered recycling to environmental and health concerns, the Brightmark plant showcases how the nation is at a potential point of inflection when it comes to what it will do about the crisis of plastic waste. A big part of that discussion is the role of chemical recycling and pyrolysis.
Brightmark’s optimistic outlook in Ashley took a hit earlier this year, after delays at its Ashley plant caused the company pain in Georgia.
During the last year, Brightmark made a play to develop a second, even larger pyrolysis plant for plastic waste in Macon, Georgia. But an agreement with a local development authority that had included issuing $500 million in bonds to help pay for the project was terminated in April after Brightmark was unable to show how it could “deliver end-product to one or more off-takers” at its plant in Ashley, according to local news accounts and national trade press.
Local and national environmental advocates who saw the Macon deal as a potential launching pad for Brightmark’s global aspirations are still celebrating what they see as a victory.
Brightmark is recalibrating while making a case for its role in what it sees as an emerging industry.
Powell, the company’s CEO, described the Macon situation as “unfortunate” and said the company is looking for other potential locations in the Southeast while focusing on launching the Ashley plant.
As for Schabel, he said he’s looking forward to getting the Ashley plant running. “I want to bring the critics in and show them,” he said.