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Plastic pellet industry booming as new facility looks for Charleston area location

Carolina Nurseries (copy)

The State Ports Authority plans to invest $750,000 in public infrastructure at the old Carolina Nurseries site along U.S. 52 to help lure a company that will transport plastic pellets from the Gulf Coast to the Port of Charleston. File

Production of plastic pellets continues to accelerate in North America, according to a report outlining the industry's growth.

More than 4.5 million tons of annual capacity has been added to polyethylene manufacturers — mostly in Texas and Louisiana — since 2017, according to Petrochemical Update. Polyethylene is sold in pellet form and converted into plastic goods like drink bottles, food containers and children's toys.

North American production of plastic pellets used to make thousands of household goods was expected to grow by about 50 percent between 2018 a…

At least 30 percent of that new U.S. capacity — 1.35 million tons — will be exported.

That has caught the attention of the State Ports Authority, which operates the Port of Charleston. The maritime agency hopes to capitalize on the growth by supporting construction of so-called transload facilities that will move the pellets — also known as nurdles — from the Gulf Coast to Charleston's terminals for shipment overseas.

One of those facilities could set up shop at the former Carolina Nurseries site on U.S. Highway 52 near Moncks Corner. The authority recently set aside $750,000 to pay for roads, water lines and other infrastructure for the project known by code name "Project Monk."

Barry Jurs, Berkeley County's economic development director, said the company is willing to invest $61.5 million and create up to 60 jobs that pay an average of $21 per hour.

Some council members are worried about the amount of traffic the project would generate along the already-clogged highway and how that would affect the quality of life for residents of nearby neighborhoods.

There also are environmental concerns. Pellets transporter Frontier Logistics was cited in July for violating the state's Pollution Control Act after a spill at its Charleston-based operation led to thousands of tiny pellets washing up on the beach at Sullivan’s Island.

Jim Newsome, the SPA's president and CEO, estimates Project Monk could eventually bring 20,000 pellet-filled cargo containers to the port each year. That's in addition to more than 32,000 containers brought to the port by Charleston-area companies like Frontier Logistics, A&R Bulk-Pak and Mid-States Packaging.

Plastic pellets are seen as a growth commodity for the Port of Charleston, which is trying to diversify its cargo base beyond manufacturing.

Recent data indicates there will be plenty of opportunity ahead.

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North American polyethylene capacity is expected to increase from 23.15 million tons a year in 2018 to 33.82 million tons annually in 2023, according to GlobalData analysts. That will make North America the world's second-largest producer, behind Asia.

"The new capacity spurred by both new construction and expansions is far from over," Petrochemical Update says in its report. "A lot more is coming."

‘Tough December’ for paper mill owner (copy)

The WestRock Co. paper mill in North Charleston.

Paper cuts

Fort Mill paper maker Domtar Corp. is shutting down a pair of production machines at mills in Ashdown, Ark., and Port Huron, Mich., the company said last week.

Domtar — which is owned by a Canadian company but keeps its administrative offices in the Palmetto State — said the move will reduce capacity by about 204,000 tons and lead to 100 layoffs, leaving both sites with a combined 937 workers.

The move follows Westrock Co.'s decision last month to reconfigure its mill along the Cooper River in North Charleston. About 260 jobs will be cut at the former Kapstone Paper and Packaging site. Westrock acquired Kapstone last year in a deal valued at $4.9 billion.

Volvo Interchange 1

A group of Volvo S60 sedans are parked on an overpass that's part of a new interchange connecting Interstate 26 with the Volvo Cars manufacturing campus and Camp Hall Commerce Park near Ridgeville. David Wren/Staff

S60 sales

Volvo Cars, which builds the S60 sedan at its $1.1 billion Berkeley County plant, has sold 17,712 of the vehicles through the first nine months of this year, the automaker reported. That includes 12,329 U.S. sales.

Volvo started making S60s at the sprawling campus off Interstate 26 about a year ago. Sedan exports from the Port of Charleston began in February.

Based in Sweden and owned by China's Geely Holding Group, Volvo plans to add its XC90 SUV to the production line near Ridgeville in 2022.

Note: This story has been updated to omit references to tax incentives being considered by Berkeley County Council. The council previously voted against those incentives.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_

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