Berkeley County residents may soon get one of the most advanced recycling programs in the country — and they won't even necessarily know they're recycling.
Officials will break ground Tuesday on the $42 million Berkeley County Recycling and Recovery Facility which will take up to 65 percent of trash out of the county’s waste stream and provide fuel for local cement plants.
Residents will not see any changes under the new program, which is expected to start in about a year. They will still put their trash and recyclables into the same bin, as many do now without a recycling program.
“This innovative approach to recycling is bringing Berkeley County, and South Carolina, into the 21st century,” said County Supervisor Bill Peagler. “This method encourages citizens to do what is environmentally friendly, without the hassle of sorting, proving it is possible to increase recycling efforts in communities.”
Owned by RePower South, the mixed-waste processing facility plant will be built on a 16-acre site at the county landfill on Oakley Road near Moncks Corner. It will be the first facility nationwide to combine mixed waste recycling and fuel manufacturing.
“We think that there is a better way to manage waste than just landfilling,” said RePower Chief Operating Officer Brian Gilhuly. “That’s always been our fundamental premise, to expand recycling reach and landfill diversion at a cost-effective solution.”
Once at the facility, RePower will pull out recyclables to sell and use some of the remaining bits of paper and plastic to make pellets to be sold as fuel, likely to cement plants around Holly Hill, Gilhuly said. The rest will go in the landfill.
The fuel pellets are physically and chemically designed to mimic the properties of coal, according to the company.
The facility, which will employ 60 people, will handle 50 tons of mixed waste per hour using optical sorters.
At present, metal brought to the county’s convenience center goes to Charleston Steel and Metal while paper products are hauled by Sonoco to a processing facility, officials said. Private curbside recycling is also available.
Although some doubt the effectiveness of mixed-waste recycling, saying commingled trash produces contaminated recyclables, Gilhuly says it is gaining popularity.
When recycling started, many homeowners had up to five bins to divide their recyclables according to type. Then came dual-stream recycling, which separated paper and cardboard from glass, plastic and metal, and, most recently, single-stream, or all recyclables in one bin. Charleston County and Summerville have single-stream.
RePower started talking to Berkeley in late 2014, shortly after Charleston County rejected the company’s pitch, calling the technology unproven.
Berkeley and RePower entered a public-private partnership agreement in July 2015 that calls for the county to pay RePower to process the waste, and Repower to pay the county to landfill the residual, according to their agreement. RePower also has a lease to operate at the landfill, and will pay the county part of the recyclable and fuel sales.
The facility is being funded by $40 million in bonds and about $350,000 from a grant from the S.C. Department of Commerce Economic Development Set-aside Fund.
Some critics worry that the local site’s inspiration, a $37 million center in Montgomery, Ala., and created by Infinitus Renewable Energy, opened in May 2014 but closed less than 18 months later. The site collected less trash than expected and didn’t make enough profit from recyclables, officials said.
“It has not affected us, and we knew they shut down prior to our decision to go forward,” said Councilman Josh Whitley. “We want this recycling sorting facility and we want it ASAP.”
RePower is now in the running to reopen that facility and if selected, plans to add the fuel component.
The startup also took a hit last summer when a deal went sour with the Southeastern Public Service Authority in Chesapeake, Va., to build a $100 million project. RePower missed financing deadlines and its plan to sell the fuel pellets to Dominion Energy fall through, according to reports.
“We spent a lot of time with Dominion, over a year, in working through that,” Gilhuly said. “In the end, Dominion backed out, for really no reason ... and then when they backed out that sort of spooked the board at SPSA. It was very politically driven by some naysayers that were never for our project to begin with. This gave them an opportunity to sink our project and they did that.”
Dominion has nothing to do with the Berkeley County deal, he said.
Charleston County’s new recycling facility on Palmetto Commerce Parkway is scheduled to open in February 2019.