Magazine Post: New Hope for the Plastic Plague

New Hope for the Plastic Plague

Electric cars, electric bicycles, solar farms, windmills — the transition in our energy economy is taking place before our eyes. Many of these changes are being driven by the business community, with automakers like General Motors announcing that it will only make electric vehicles by 2035 and Florida Power and Light’s commitment to massive solar power expansions. Yet, even with major advances in clean energy and a focus on reducing greenhouse gases, that doesn’t change the fact that our oceans are still under serious pressure.

There are major challenges with coral reef diseases and bleaching, overfishing, illegal fishing, ocean acidification, and one massive problem we hear about constantly, plastics in the ocean. It’s been said that by 2050 there will be more plastic by weight in the ocean than fish. That is simply frightening. Fortunately, there are a lot of nonprofit and for-profit organizations and government agencies focused on reducing, recycling and reusing plastics. One such company is a relatively new company, Brightmark, which is in the process of building a $680 million plastic recycling center in Macon, Georgia. GHM sat down with Bob Powell, CEO and founder Brightmark, about the future of energy and plastic.

GHM: How did you go from working for an accounting firm to a leader in the recycling industry?

Powell: Mine has been a long journey to get to where we are today, but I distinctly remember when I seriously started thinking about the negative effects humans have on the planet. It was a trip to Asia when I was with the Arthur Andersen accounting firm. We were helping our client buy a power plant, and I was in Jakarta, Indonesia where there’s lots of traffic and open sewers. There were kids playing in the sewer, and I’m thinking like, “Wow, these kids are about the same ages as my oldest son, Sean.” That was the first time that I thought about getting into the waste business.

Then, part of my expertise was helping clients buy coal-fired power plants. I saw how the ash got thrown in these pots that have heavy metals that leach into the ground. As a company, we were looking at it just from a cost perspective, as in, what are the costs to clean up so we could put that in the financials. I didn’t think a power plant would have a toxic waste dump. I realized that cleaning up waste could be a good business and a good thing for the planet.

GHM: In 2016, you and your team came up with a concept of getting Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) from cow manure. I’m sure you’ve had to endure many poop jokes, but tell us how the cow manure business solidified?

Powell: Yes, we basically went into the manure rental business. It’s not very sexy, but it’s a win/win because we pay the farmers a premium price to take their manure for 21 days, we extract the methane to use as fuel and they get their manure back. They like to use it for bedding, so they don’t want to sell it to us. So we came up with the idea of just renting it. That way, we don’t have to dispose of it, which would create yet another environmental challenge.

Five years ago, we were just five people in a dark office with secondhand furniture living on hope. Our breakthrough came when that first dairy farmer raised his hand and said he would go with us. Now we are the market leader in RNG in farming communities. That all started with those farmers. There was nothing of appreciable value in the manure other than they could sell it for fertilizers, which has the side effect of causing algae blooms. Now we provide them with an additional income stream that is exciting for family farms.

GHM: Recycling has been around for a long time, but it seems like you’re the first company to figure out how to make money.

Powell: Much of the recycling today is mechanical, which is basically melting the plastic or chopping it up. First of all, you can’t do that with 100 percent of the plastics out there — only plastic types 1 and 2 — so there’s a major limit on that. What we do is break down plastic, via a chemical process, into the base building blocks — hydrogen and carbon atoms — so we can create new plastics or fuel that can be used to power vehicles or equipment.

The other issue with traditional recycling is that only 9% of plastics are recycled. When people put all of that plastic into their recycling bin, the majority of it goes into a landfill. That’s not recycling, it’s “wish-cycling.” We wish it’s getting recycled, but it’s not.

The best part about our process is that the plastic can be recycled over and over and over. As long as they can be brought back into the same circle. We call that the Circular Solution. The profit side of the equation comes from our proprietary process. The energy we use versus the energy we produce is an 1-to-11 ratio, so that makes recycling plastic a very profitable business, really for the first time. As Bob Dylan said, “the times they are a-changin’.” In this case, the times have already changed.

GHM: If only 9% is getting recycled, how do we as a society increase that?

Powell: You increase it by having a real solution for the waste management companies. We make it economically viable because we can pay those companies to bring their plastics to us. Right now, they’re paying landfills to take it, but they can make more money by bringing it to Brightmark. 

GHM: You’re building a brand new, $680 million plant in Macon, Georgia. You’re going big time. 

Powell: Yes, we are expanding rapidly. We built our first facility in Ashley, Indiana, and started in April of 2019. When we’re finished this year with that project, we will be creating ultra-low sulphur diesel as transportation fuel. It’s the most environmentally friendly form of diesel. Another product that we create from plastic is part of an additive to gasoline. The other product is paraffin wax, which can be used for candles and other applications. And, of course, we will make other plastic products from recycled plastic.

The new plant in Macon, Georgia, is on 5 million square feet of property. We will be able to take 400,000 tons — 800,000,000 pounds — out of the planet at that facility. We have to do this at scale and globally so we can get to the point that we’re recycling more than we’re producing.

GHM: You began five years ago in a small office with five people. You’ve had some impressive growth.

Powell: Yes, we’re now somewhere around 140 employees. When the Macon plant is complete we’ll add another 100 at least.

GHM: What shaped your love of the ocean?

Powell: I grew up in Georgia, and my brother and I would go down to Panama City Beach when we were younger. It all started there on those white beaches and in that clear water. Then I had the opportunity to go scuba diving. Once I was below the surface, I felt this sense of connection with the whole ecosystem of plants and animals that help support us. 

The diving experience and the feeling of weightlessness is very Zen. The ocean is just this amazingly beautiful and fragile place, and that inspires the work we do. It’s exciting to know that we’re helping the oceans and the planet. We all have a role to play, just like the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation has a role. It takes a village to make this happen. We’re excited to partner with GHOF in those efforts.

GHM: Do you think that we will ever get to a place where we’re making more clean energy than we can use?

Powell: Yes, I do and I have a lot of reasons to feel that way. In San Francisco, we had a goal of having 20% green energy by 2020. At first, we were freaked out because we didn’t think we’d make it, but we blew through that goal and other communities are doing the same. Now clean energy is price competitive because we’ve invested with optimism around solving the energy crisis. I believe there’s a future when combustible products will go away simply because they won’t be economical anymore.

GHM: What other cool stuff is Brightmark into?

Powell: We also make energy out of food waste as there’s a tremendous amount of food that goes into the trash. We’re changing that. Another element of our business that we’re excited about is working with a group called, RecycleForce. It employs formerly incarcerated people and started out taking e-waste — old computers, phones and such. They were paying a lot of money to landfill the plastics, so they reached out to us. Now, instead of them having to pay landfills, we’re paying them and providing them money they really need. Ultimately, they’re not just recycling plastics, they’re recycling lives, and that is a great feeling. For example, the average recidivism is 70%. RecycleForce has been able to reduce that to 20% by providing meaningful work and wages.

GHM: Any final thoughts?

Powell: Yes, not everything we’ve done is perfect, but we’ve got a great group. It’s all about trial and failure until we get it right. We have to have both an economic and environmental solution. One comes with the other if we’re going to create a world without waste.


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