RePower South (RPS), Moncks Corner, South Carolina, has changed the economics of mixed waste processing by recovering and recycling more material and converting nonrecyclable paper and plastics that are typically sent to landfill into a clean, low-carbon renewable fuel.
With the opening of two RePower South facilities in Berkeley County, South Carolina, and Montgomery, Alabama, Waste Today talked with RePower South Co-founder and CEO Brain Gilhuly about the vision behind the projects and how RePower South is enhancing recycling in communities.
Waste Today (WT): RePower South opened its first operating facility at the former Infinitus Renewable Energy Park (IREP) mixed waste processing facility in Montgomery, Alabama. What modifications and changes did RePower South make at the plant to ensure successful operations?
Brain Gilhuly (BG): In the existing front-end system, designed by Oregon-based Bulk Handling Systems (BHS), we had to create the ability to capture material for our fuel feedstock. We did alter the existing system. We allowed it to continue to recover recyclable commodities, but also allowed it to capture material we want to capture for our fuel and send that to a fuel manufacturing line that has been added at the plant.
WT: How is RePower South’s process different from traditional material recovery facilities (MRFs) and mixed waste processing facilities?
BG: We process MSW and single-stream to recover recyclable commodities, including PET, HDPE, steel, aluminum and mixed paper, and sell those in their normal commodity markets, but we also recover nonrecyclable paper and plastics. Those are largely the materials that aren’t of quality for current recycling markets, and we process that material into fuel for utility, cement companies and paper mills to use.
A lot of the technology that we’re deploying are technologies used throughout the industry. We’re doing so mechanically with discs and screens. We’re also doing so pneumatically using air for density separation. We’re using infrared sorters to sort material based on chemical composition. We’re also deploying the BHS Max-AI. A lot of that technology is utilized in the industry today, but I think it’s really the order and way in which we’re using it that makes it different.
WT: What led to the formation of RePower South?
BG: I have two co-founding partners, Justin Converse and Jim Bohlig. The fuel technology itself came from a company Jim had worked at years ago, Casella Waste Systems, Rutland, Vermont. The technology was sold from Casella to ReCommunity, North Carolina, and ReCommunity formed Accordant Energy, Rutland, Vermont, to license the fuel technology. RePower South was formed as the first licensor of that technology.
Originally, we looked at recycling and saw recycling had largely plateaued years ago in terms of the amount of commodities being recovered via both single-stream and dual-stream recycling. Initially, some of the limitations were collection restrictions. Over the years, it’s continued to expand in many different communities, but then I think with some of the fall of commodities it began to contract. There’s less and less collection that occurs. It was both the collection piece and just general participation. Even if you have a bin, roughly 60 percent of people that have access to it utilize it. We were looking for a way to recycle more.
WT: What are the setbacks of mixed waste processing and how did RePower South set out to change the model to recycle and recover more material?
BG: I think historically mixed waste processing has not been accepted or deployed by the markets largely because of economic constraints. They take in the mixed waste. They get paid a tip fee for it. They have various levels of investment in processing and labor and recover 20 to 30 percent of recycled commodities and pay to landfill 70 to 80 percent of material that is unprocessed.
We changed the economic model of that in that we get paid a tip fee. We can recover the same recycled commodities, but now we’re taking a good chunk of the balance of the waste stream and turning it into ReEngineered Feedstock. We took a landfill expense and now we’ve turned that into a revenue stream. That changed the overall dynamic of the economic model and that’s largely what we set out to do.
WT: What are the challenges of starting up recycling and recovery facilities in new communities?
BG: Change for communities is probably the largest hurdle because economically we’re able to offer a program that’s more cost-effective, more recycling and less landfill for a community, so the merits of the program make all the sense in the world, but making the change, whether it’s political or municipal, has been difficult.
Working with Berkeley County has been fantastic. They had the courage to do something different. They did not have recycling other than an opt-in program and the participation was low. They wanted to deliver recycling to the community and recognized landfilling less at the municipal landfill here was a great benefit to the community.
I think there are some misconceptions in the market that we are somehow challenging recycling, but we really view ourselves as enhancing recycling and recovering more material that is available to be recovered. It may not be done so in the traditional way as current recycling programs are done, but we think that we’ll bring more material to the market than less. Hopefully, with some proven performance in these plants, others will see the light in terms of the benefits that we can provide to communities at large.
WT: What is the long-term vision for RePower South?
BG: For these projects, producing quality projects via recycled products or fuel is our sole focus, but we’ll continue to look at the waste stream and see if there are other ways we can reuse additional components of that material. If we can invest and do that and continue to reduce the amount of material that does go to landfill. On the broader scale, we certainly hope to open more of these facilities and serve other communities around the Southeast.