Charleston County, which has been without an adequate recycling facility for years, will start paying Berkeley County to transport bin materials to a plant that environmentalists believe uses unproven technology: plastic as burnable pellets.
On Friday, Charleston County began paying Berkeley County nearly $40 a ton for recyclable materials to bring to the RePower South facility in Moncks Corner.
The plant, which opened in April, uses a variety of technology to separate single stream garbage from salvageable material.
But it also uses whatever can't be saved as a fuel pellet for factories and manufacturing plants to burn alongside coal, which raises concerns about carbon impact.
RePower South pays Berkeley County a lease to operate on the landfill as well as a revenue share of the sale of the recyclable material and fuel. Charleston County has agreed to deliver, at its own cost, a minimum of 2,000 tons of material to RePower South each month.
Additionally, under the agreement, all waste from Charleston County that can't be processed by RePower will not be put in the Berkeley landfill.
“That gets us tons that we need," Brian Gilhuly, the CEO of RePower South said. "We're starving for material.”
Berkeley County has promised to provide the recycling company at least 120,000 tons of waste every year, Gilhuly said. He estimates that Charleston County will contribute an additional 24,000 to 30,000 tons.
RePower created a public-private partnership agreement in December 2015 that calls for Berkeley County to pay RePower $37.88 a ton to process the waste. The company, in turn, will pay the county $37.88 for every ton of trash that is returned to the landfill. The company leases 15 acres of space inside the landfill, and will pay the county part of the recyclable and fuel sales.
RePower South is a mixed-waste facility, meaning recyclables, garbage and potential chemicals in the trash are all mingled together and then sorted. Some recyclables can be contaminated, such as coffee grounds or battery acid spilling on some paper towel or a plastic water bottle.
And what can't be saved from Berkeley or Charleston counties will end up being turned into a fuel pellet to be burned alongside coal in cement plants, paper mills and power plants. Outside of selling the recycled material in overseas markets, the fuel pellets provide an additional revenue stream for the facility.
This has raised concerns among area environmentalists such as the Coastal Conservation League, which say items such as pharmaceutical waste or other contaminants could interact with the fuel product, which could then go airborne when burned.
"Overall, we still believe the technology is unproven," said Betsy LaForce, a project manager with the Coastal Conservation League.
LaForce also said the change happened behind closed doors and that "the public should remained engaged" throughout all the negotiations between the counties.
"Our concern is that the existing Charleston County recycling program will be compromised," LaForce said.
The journey for Charleston County to get a handle on recycling has not been seamless.
In June, Charleston County's recyclables were sent to the Bees Ferry Landfill after a machinery breakdown at its recycling facility. It was the latest in a series of issues for the recycling program while Charleston County residents await construction of a $24 million recycling center that’s expected to open in 2020 in North Charleston. The county decided to build that facility in 2013.
Shawn Smetana, spokesman for Charleston County, said the Romney Street facility was back to being operational in late June, but it can't keep up with the current amount of waste and is overburdened.
“The current facility on Romney Street is too small to handle the amount of recycling," Smetana said.
Mount Pleasant residents and North Charleston residents will now have their recycling processed at RePower. The majority of downtown locations will still have recycling processed on Romney Street.