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Brightmark: Circularity Is The Solution To Plastic Pollution And CO2

Two of the very top concerns for the environmentally conscious are plastic waste and greenhouse gas emissions. The plastic problem has garnered more and more attention with the proliferation of photos showing rivers and bays choked with waste, and as people have learned that separating recyclables at home doesn’t necessarily keep them out of the landfill. And regardless what you think about climate change, reducing the colossal man-made sources of atmosphere-altering gases only makes good sense.

San Francisco-based waste solutions company Brightmark LLC is attacking both challenges. Today they announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for a partnership to construct a commercial-scale plastics renewal plant in South Korea with Seoul-based international petrochemical company SK Global Chemical. They’re a subsidiary of SK Innovation that makes advanced materials for automotive, electronics and telecommunications producers, as well as consumer products. The MOE is focused on supporting SK Global Chemical’s Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance initiatives.

Brightmark has been working on solutions to the two environmental challenges domestically for a while now. For the plastic waste problem, the company closed a $260 million financing package in 2019 to capitalize the construction of their first commercial-scale plastics-to-fuel plant. Located in Ashley, Indiana, that plant is slated to start up in the first half of this year. When it’s fully operational, it will process 100,000 tons of plastic waste per year, and will employ about 140 workers. “It’s plastics renewal,” said Brightmark’s CEO Bob Powell. “We’ll take the waste and create useable products from it.”

The plant’s process is enhanced pyrolysis, for which the waste plastic is first shredded into pellets. It’s then heated to high temperature (between 400 and 650 degrees Celsius) in the absence of oxygen, which breaks the polymer chains of the plastics and transforms the waste into diesel fuel, naphtha and wax. “The process is low cost, so we can sell the products on par with the market,” Powell said. At full rates, the plant will produce a combined total of about 18 million gallons per year of diesel and naphtha, and six million gallons of wax annually. “British Petroleum has partnered with us on the plastics side,” Powell continued. “They’re great partners and committed early to buy all fuels produced from the plastic waste.” That same technology is what Brightmark will use in its new partnership with SK Global Chemical. “Pyrolysis is an essential technology to resolve plastic issue,” said Na Kyung-soo, their CEO. “This partnership with Brightmark will help establish us as leaders on this important challenge.”

The process has advantages in feedstock flexibility and efficiency. “We can take all plastics, grades #1 to #7,” explained Powell. That’s a big plus over traditional recycling, in which only certain grades can be economically recycle and the rest are landfilled or incinerated. “And it’s a 93% efficient process, which means 93% of the plastic waste brought in is converted into usable products,” he added. “This is a huge point of differentiation in Brightmark’s technology versus any other technology currently on the market.”

Brightmark has partnered with Indianapolis-based RecycleForce for both feedstock and employee recruitment. Itself a recycler, RecycleForce will send plastics it can’t recycle (materials contaminated with food products, for example) to the Brightmark facility. “They process a lot of electronic waste,” said Powell. “We’ll be taking plastics that otherwise would have been landfilled from them.” RecycleForce also runs a training and development program that Brightmark will tap into. “They’re an Indiana partner that hires formerly-incarcerated individuals and provides training and employment services. We’re mission-oriented, and we seek partners who share our mission.”

Meanwhile, on the greenhouse gas front, Brightmark last year launched a joint venture with Chevron U.S.A. Inc. CVX +1%, Brightmark RNG Holdings LLC, to develop renewable natural gas (RNG) projects. Equity investments from both companies will fund construction of the projects, and Chevron will purchase the RNG they generate, to sell as fuel for vehicles operating on compressed natural gas.

Initial projects are focused on dairy biogas, in which the joint venture will construct and operate anaerobic digesters to process manure from dairy farms and capture biomethane. Organic waste is collected at the farms and transported to the digesting plant, where it’s processed in a closed tank in the absence of oxygen. Bacteria break down the waste and generate biogas, which is further processed in to RNG. The remaining 90% of the waste is converted into soil product that can be used as fertilizer or compost, and is either returned to the farms or sold downstream. “The solids create more stable fertilizers,” Powell said. “So in addition to these projects being intensely carbon negative, they help keep nitrogen and phosphorus out of our waterways.”

Brightmark RNG Holdings LLC has initial projects already underway in Florida, Michigan, New York, and South Dakota, which adds to Brightmark’s existing projects with 23 farms across the country.

Powell is happy with the company’s progress. “We have a way to solve problems some people didn’t think we could solve at scale,” he said. “We’ve shown we can do it in ways that are economically sustainable. Eventually we want to reach full circularity. I see a future where we do more, but for now just in those two areas we have an awful lot happening. In the future, we might have more going on in water and electrical infrastructure. We’re looking at expanding more internationally too. Global problems require global solutions.” The SK Global Chemical MOU is the first step of potentially many in that direction.

The company’s goals are to divert 8.4 million tons of plastic waste from landfills and the natural environment, and to offset 22 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, by 2024. Beyond fuels, waxes and naptha, Brightmark plans to use the plastic it recycles to produce 1.7 million tons of feedstocks necessary to remake plastics, creating a truly circular solution.

“I’m excited about what we’re doing,” said Powell. “The future is very bright.”

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