A Rust Belt city debates a growing plastic future

ERIE, Pa. — Gary Horton knows what it’s like to go toe-to-toe with big polluters and win.

Horton, the head of the Erie County NAACP, helped pressure national, state and local authorities to shut down Erie Coke, an industrial facility that had sat on the shores of Lake Erie for well over a hundred years but was routinely polluting the air and water. The plant’s closure at the end of 2019 was a win for Erie’s underserved communities, who had been exposed to toxic levels of gases like benzene.

Now, a new environmental justice battle is forming that ties together the future of sustainability, plastics and business in Erie. A proposed plastics recovery facility, called a SuperPRF by its parent company, International Recycling Group, or IRG, is planned for an empty industrial site in East Erie.

Some applaud the promise of well-paying jobs that are sorely needed in the underserved community, which is struggling to reinvent itself following the collapse of heavy industry. The plant could also boost household plastic recycling and offer the steelmaking industry an alternative to burning emissions-heavy coal.

But others are worried that the plastic facility will create new pollution sources just a few years after the shutdown of Erie Coke. They also worry about what could happen if IRG fails, recalling the long-term population decline Erie has faced since its height in the 1960s after layoffs by large employers.

Activists have argued that the SuperPRF, the largest facility of its kind in the country, would need 400 truckloads of plastic material a day in order to remain profitable, routing significant roadside pollution through an environmental justice zone.

And there are questions about whether the facility’s business plan will ever make sense. Though IRG says the plant will one day sort out hard-to-recycle plastics like polystyrene and polyvinyl chloride and route them to recyclers, its immediate plan is to turn the plastic it receives into flakes and ship them to Canada to be burned in steel plants.

Horton’s stuck on the fence. He now serves on Pennsylvania’s Environmental Justice Advisory Board, and he said he’s learned through the board that companies like IRG can bring real benefits to Erie if they engage in community outreach.

In July, representatives from IRG reached out to Horton to discuss a $15-an-hour minimum wage, the possibility of a community benefit agreement and appointing a member of “a minority community in Erie” to serve on the corporate board.

Given the dire economic straits the city faces — including a looming five-year deadline to refinance its debt — Horton said he’s inclined to link Erie’s future to plastics.

“You can kill us and not employ us. Or you can kill us and employ us,” Horton said. “And I think for the people who are being killed period, they’d rather be employed and killed than unemployed and killed.”

 

Erie’s plastic industry

 

The city of Erie has been the site of plastic manufacturing plants for decades. The first injection molding plant opened in the region in 1935, and since then, companies like the Plastek Group and Port Erie Plastics have developed along the lakefront to take advantage of the region’s low cost of living and industrial base.

As they looked to expand their workforce, they turned to Pennsylvania State University, Behrend, the local campus for the public university.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, several corporate investors began financing a polymer research facility and program that Penn State Behrend now considers the largest undergraduate plastics program in the country.

“You can look at micro level all the way up to macro level here, which is a set of capabilities that you really don’t find anywhere else, really, in the nation,” said Gamini Mendis, a professor at Penn State Behrend who specializes in polymer sustainability.

A tour of today’s campus reveals the lasting influence of the plastics industry: Buildings are named after Joseph Prischak, Richard Fasenmyer and William Witkowski, all influential local plastics executives who donated money to the school.

Ralph Ford, Penn State Behrend’s chancellor, has welcomed the investment. Many of the machines used in the 10,300-square-foot Plastics Processing Lab are provided on consignment by those same businesses.

Ford said graduating students get snapped up immediately by local companies and international corporations alike, including Apple, Google and Tesla.

“That’s why you see this great infrastructure that you do here; we’ve got a tremendous amount of support,” Ford said. “We’re very fortunate to have this infrastructure.”

The university has already begun partnering with IRG, as well. Over the summer, Mendis began a study with students and researchers at the lab to collect a week’s worth of plastics from 200 households in Erie. The samples were collected and hand-sorted by type of plastic, color and shape, and will now be analyzed to determine which plastics are chemically similar enough to group together in flakes.

The goal, Mendis said, is to identify what IRG can mix together to create high-quality flakes that can be sold back to manufacturers.

“If you take all the different chemistries, or all the different types of, say, polyethylene, and you bundle it into one big bundle, that’s a really low-quality plastic,” Mendis said. “But if you, say, take all the milk jugs, and put that into one bale, ship it to a specific place, they can make another milk jug with much higher quality than that big bale.”

 

The economic case

 

The IRG plant seeks to solve a fundamental problem that no recycler in decades has been able to untangle: making it profitable to sort and recycle every kind of plastic waste.

There’s a vast supply of single-use plastics to mine if recyclers can find a way to compete with virgin plastics: EPA estimates just 8.7% of plastic products are recycled in the United States. But in the past few years, several high-profile plastics-sorting facilities have shut down after they failed to stay in the black in Maryland, Utah and California, and those still in operation in North America have reported difficulties bringing in enough feedstock to maintain profits, according to the trade journal Plastics Recycling Update.

IRG co-founder Mitch Hecht says his plant can succeed where others have failed thanks to three factors: scale, a novel way to avoid landfilling and a first-of-its-kind plastics pickup program.

The size of IRG’s planned operation is audacious. The plant would accept all kinds of plastics, all mixed together, from municipalities in a 750-mile radius. Then it would sort out the plastics that are currently easy and profitable to recycle, PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and PP (polypropylene).

The IRG facility will be 10 times larger than most plastics facilities, Hecht said, to bring in more of the profitable plastic while maintaining relatively low labor costs.

After the profitable plastics are sorted out, the rest of the plastics would then be turned into plastic flakes, shipped to steelmaking facilities and burned as a product called “Clean Red.”

Hecht said Clean Red is a “bridge” product that returns a narrow profit but eliminates the losses his predecessors have struggled with when they had to pay to landfill unrecyclable plastics.

“If you have to landfill the majority of what you get, you’re dead,” Hecht said. “You need the Clean Red as a bridge to build a sorting plant on the size we have.”

Finally, Hecht plans to pilot a new program, called newBin, where he would employ a gig economy-style workforce to pick up plastic waste from households across Erie. Participating households would put all their plastic into bags and leave them on their front step, then note on an app that their plastics are ready for pickup.

Hecht insists the program will be a money saver, since trash haulers can charge a significant amount to collect and deliver waste.

In its entirety, Hecht said, the business plan amounts to a “soup-to-nuts” revision of the recycling business. He believes that his plant will bring about a sea change in recycling, one in which plastics recyclers can cut out the “oligopoly” of waste haulers and turn losses into profits.

Hecht plans to employ up to 50 people when the plant opens, and he has promised that workers would be paid at least $15 per hour. Hecht has said the facility could expand to employ up to 120 people by its third year. Currently, IRG plans to open its facility in 2022, though the organization has not filed for permits yet.

 

‘It just boggles my mind’

 

Not everyone is swayed by the promise of 50 jobs, especially when considering the size of the proposed IRG facility.

According to some local activists, their most immediate worry is the trucks. Jan Dell, founder of Last Beach Cleanup and an expert on the movement of plastic waste, estimated that in order to feed the 275,000 tons of mixed plastic waste per year the IRG plant will process, the facility will need to take in 400 truckloads of plastic a day.

Janice Etchison, an Erie native who campaigned with Hold Erie Coke Accountable, said she thinks the proposed facility is a bad deal. She is concerned that the truckloads of plastic will be shipped through older neighborhoods in the region with narrow and potholed streets.

They would also pass by an elementary and middle school and Boys & Girls Club, which all lie just blocks from the site of the proposed plant.

“It just boggles my mind that the people in power in Erie accepted him or are inviting him to come in Erie are allowing this to happen,” she said.

EPA has identified near-roadway air pollution as a contributor to disproportionately high childhood asthma rates in low-income communities. Particulate matter, carbon monoxide, benzene and other toxic gases are emitted by trucks, and those pollutants can increase the risk of cardiopulmonary disease or premature death in affected populations.

Sarah Bennett, a campaigner for environmental group PennFuture who is based in Erie, met with IRG’s executives in May to discuss environmental issues, especially the group’s plans for sending unrecyclable plastics to be burned. But she said the meeting did nothing to assuage her concerns.

According to Bennett, Hecht said that the company along with the steel firms involved would conduct testing on emissions from burning plastics but that he wouldn’t make the results of that testing public or allow PennFuture to see them.

IRG confirmed that the results of such tests would not be made public because they involve proprietary materials and trade secrets.

Bennett said she’s concerned about the presence of unknown additives in plastic materials. She cited research from organizations like the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, which has cast doubt on the relative environmental merits of burning plastic by arguing that pollutants go from being locked into the plastic to being released via air and water emissions.

Bennett said she would like to see a full environmental analysis of burning IRG’s plastics before she can be convinced it’s a safe option.

“I think that with anything that’s relatively new, that we should move forward with the precautionary principle,” Bennett said. “It should be proven to be safe before we say it’s a good idea.”

Mendis, the scientist and professor at Penn State Behrend, is working with IRG to conduct that kind of testing. He said the science indicates that burning plastic in the steelmaking process is just as safe as burning the metallurgical coal it replaces. A spokesperson for IRG also cited the use of incineration in Japan and the European Union as proof that the process would not produce harmful pollutants such as carcinogenic dioxin and furans.

 

Marriage between plastics and steel

IRG’s plastics recovery facility would bring Erie something close to full circle. The pellets IRG makes would replace the coke produced on Lake Erie’s shore so recently, but with a slightly greener spin.

The steelmaking industry, which represents 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, has its own pollution crisis to contend with. Using plastic as a coking agent is seen as a stopgap measure to help bring those emissions down while cleaner hydrogen technology is developed and scaled.

The proprietary Clean Red plastic coking agent fulfills a key metric for heavy industry as it looks to rapidly decarbonize: It’s greener than burning coal. Using plastics in the coking process can cut CO2 emissions by about 30%, according to a 2019 study published in the journal Materials.

The technique has been used successfully in Japan, Australia and certain European countries that have a ready supply of plastic feedstock and a steel industry in need of sustainable alternatives.

But in Japan, at least, that concept is 20 years old. Globally, the steel industry is past the stage where it’s considering plastics as a primary solution for decarbonizing, said Michel Van Hoey, an expert on the industry and consultant with McKinsey & Co.

There are also outstanding questions about where IRG can send the plastics to be burned. The company signed a memorandum of understanding with steelmaker Stelco Holdings Inc. in Nanticoke, Ontario, in 2019, but it’s unclear whether shipping plastic flakes destined to be burned falls under international restrictions for hazardous waste (E&E News PM, Jan. 12).

Hecht said IRG could find another steelmaker stateside if necessary, but Bennett argues that her concerns about emissions will apply regardless of where the plastic gets burned.

The Erie model, then, is a race against time. IRG’s backers have contended for years that their plastic pellets are a stopgap approach to recycling until the market for recycled plastics in key categories like PVC and polystyrene expands.

Hecht says IRG plans to use Clean Red only for its first 10 to 15 years of operation, until it’s profitable for all kinds of plastics to be recycled instead of flaked and burned. But when that change will come is unclear.

 

Searching for approval

 

Numerous public and private institutions have identified Erie as a former industrial area prime for reinvestment.

The private Great Lakes Protection Fund also lists the county as one of the 10 best in the Great Lakes region for green infrastructure investment, citing its available workforce and high climate change risk.

There are also several opportunity zone tracts within the city, including along the Bayfront area, where property owners have lower taxes in order to spur development in historically underserved areas. A portion of the $9 million put up by Erie Insurance Group toward the project came from opportunity zone funding.

IRG has already earned several endorsements from local political leaders. Mayor Joe Schember has repeatedly supported the project in statements, and County Councilman André Horton showed up to an Earth Day cleanup event hosted by IRG, where he expressed enthusiasm for IRG’s facility.

The plant offers the chance to “recycle 90% of the plastics and get some kind of use out of it [while] producing very little byproduct,” Horton said, according to YourErie.com. “So this community could certainly use the jobs. We look forward to the relationship with IRG.”

Neither he nor Schember responded to questions emailed by E&E News.

Michael Keys, an activist turned county councilman from Erie, also backs the IRG plan. He noted that the project would go into the former International Paper Co. industrial site, which he said would likely need remediation otherwise.

Keys said the council’s role in the IRG approval process is limited. But as a member of the community, he would like to see a community benefit agreement reached between IRG and the residents of East Erie.

“Let’s say, hypothetically, the plant is built. I do believe that corporations should have some type of benefit agreement with the neighborhood or the surrounding area to either supply them with jobs, first access to them or something else, in order to offset the possible harm to the community,” Keys said.

In a statement, IRG said a community benefits agreement was a topic of discussion with Horton of the Erie NAACP.

Many of the Erie residents and leaders who spoke against the plant emphasized their belief that the IRG facility is not an inevitability. Though the city is in need of new investment and job opportunities, they pointed to its growing cyber sector or potentially green technology as providers of more promising, sustainable jobs that would have a smaller environmental impact.

Art Leopold, another longtime Erie resident, said he is skeptical about the plant. He said the City Council should coordinate a series of public hearings on the facility and allow Erie residents to question IRG’s executives.

He worries that such a large facility could create a big mess if IRG leaves. Erie has “been burnt in the past” by businesses falling short of their promise to revive the local economy, Leopold said.

He said local leaders should work to attract better options than the IRG facility that has fallen into their laps.

“They need to change their self-worth … so that the people in Erie can shed the old view of the past and be in a reinventive mode,” Leopold said. “We’re getting there, but I think they need to begin anew.”

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