Charleston County is considering a new technology that would convert trash to pellets that ultimately would be burned in coal plants that generate electricity.
By the numbers
Garbage generated 152,000 tons
Garbage disposal cost $36 per ton
Recyclable materials collected 37,000 tons
Recycling center operating cost $700,000
Income from recycling $1.4 million
Supporters of the new technology think it's an environmentally sound system that could both change the way solid waste is processed and cut down emissions from coal plants. But some County Council members are wary of putting in place a new system to handle the county's garbage that hasn't yet been used anywhere else in the world.
Charleston County Council Tuesday will hear a presentation on the technology from Repower South, the company that created it. Repower is a new South Carolina-based company that launched its website Monday.
County Councilwoman Colleen Condon, former chairwoman of council's solid waste committee, said the system is untested and unproven. "We've looked at these technologies in the past," Condon said. "They're snake oil."
But Councilman Vic Rawl, who said he is open to taking a look at the new technology, said the county has set a goal to recycle 40 percent of the stream of solid waste. That's a great goal, he said, "but what about the other 60 percent?"
And it's a good time to look at new technology, Rawl said, because the county is about to move forward with building a new recycling facility. "If Repower South has something to show us and they are willing to put capital into it, why not look at it?"
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey also has said at several public city meetings in recent months that he's very interested in the technology.
Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said Repower's Jim Bryan has been reaching out to council members for the past several months. Bryan recently retired from SCANA Corporation, where he served for 18 years as manager of economic development and local government for southern and eastern South Carolina.
Repower officials have said they are interested in building a facility on land the county owns, Pryor said. That could be near the Bees Ferry Landfill, on Palmetto Commerce Parkway in North Charleston or at another location, he said.
Repower then would process all of the county's trash. It would pull out and sell the recyclables, then make pellets from a portion of what's left. The pellets would be mixed with coal and used at coal plants. Repower leaders have said the pellets would cut down on harmful emissions from those plants, Pryor said.
Scott Brandon, from the public relations firm The Brandon Agency which represents Repower, said under the company's plan, polymers, from trash such as plastic bottle caps, and fibers, largely from paper, would be removed from the remaining trash. They would be mixed with chemicals and heated to make pellets. The pellets also have earned approval from the Environmental Protection Agency.
That would divert 70 percent of the waste stream, he said, leaving only 30 percent to be dumped in landfills, he said.
Brandon also said that heating some trash is not the same thing as burning trash.
Charleston County in 2009 closed its trash burning incinerator amid strong opposition from residents who lived near it. The residents complained about the smoke, ash, stench and noise the facility brought to their neighborhoods.
After the incinerator closed, the county launched a campaign to dramatically boost its recycling rate, Condon said. And the county's new solid waste program is less expensive than using the incinerator, she said.
She thinks the county should stick to its existing plan to roll out single-stream recycling to all eligible county residents, and to build a new recycling center to process what it collects.
Under the widely popular single-stream program, residents can mix all of their recyclables into one large rolling bin, instead of separating them. About 95,000 of approximately 120,000 eligible homes have received the bins so far.
The county is about to hire a new company to run the current Romney Street recycling facility, she said. It's possible to run a second shift there, she said. "We could ramp up the recycling center and get to total single-stream in 120 days."
Councilman Dickie Schweers said he thinks Repower's promises sound too good to be true. And, the county's solid waste professionals are not recommending the technology, he said.
If the Repower's technology works, it would be "the greatest thing since the light bulb," he said. But Repower simply hasn't tested the technology on a large scale, Schweers said. "The county has no place in the research and development business or the risk business."
Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.