Proposed plastics-to-fuel plant in Macon-Bibb is part of the problem, not the solution, to plastic pollution
Macon, GA – The Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority held a public hearing late in November concerning the issuance of $500 million in Exempt Facility Revenue Bonds to the company Brightmark Plastics Renewal Georgia, LLC. If approved by the Authority, the funds would be used to finance the largest plastics-to-fuel facility in the world.
“Although Brightmark brands this plant as a ‘recycling’ facility, in reality the plant will convert plastic waste into fossil fuels—diesel, in this case—and other petrochemical products,” said Jessica Wahl with the Environment Georgia Research and Policy Center. “Turning plastic into diesel fuel that will subsequently be burned is essentially just moving our landfills into the air to be inhaled. It is not recycling, and it has no place in a circular economy.”
Brightmark, a San Francisco-based company that operates one other plant in Ashley, Indiana, has plans to convert 400,000 tons of plastic waste per year into diesel fuel, naphtha blend stocks, and wax in South Macon near the Middle Georgia Regional Airport and Robins Air Force Base.
More than twenty Macon residents and nonprofit leaders voiced their opposition to the plant at the hearing. Only one attendee, a Georgia Power employee involved with the project, spoke in support of Brightmark’s proposition.
“Brightmark will be renewing pollution as it’s moved from our landfills and through their facility into the air we breathe and the water we drink,” said Alex Truelove, the Zero Waste Director with the Public Interest Research Group. “For years, facilities just like this one have threatened public health, public safety, and local environments, and they have failed to prove financially viable.”
The plastics burned in plastic-to-fuel conversion (called pyrolysis) often contain carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting additives, in addition to which the pyrolysis process forms new toxic chemicals including benzene, formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide, and dioxins. These substances contribute to the development of asthma, cancer, and reproductive and developmental problems among other health issues.
But even beyond worries over the plant’s environmental and health impacts, attendees raised alarm over the project’s financial viability and asked to know why the authority will conduct no performance audit or performance review with respect to the bonds (as stated on their website).
According to Graham Hamilton, the Break Free From Plastic US Policy Officer, “Plastic recycling markets are collapsing worldwide because they cannot compete with virgin plastic. The cost of collecting, cleaning and sorting material is higher than the cost of making new plastic from oil and gas. This is a problem that an expensive, energy-intensive, so-called ‘chemical recycling’ plant cannot address.”
Macon residents at the hearing voiced their concern regarding everything from the health impacts of pollution to the possibility that the plant’s emissions might force Macon out of attainment status again. Community members also brought up the environmental justice implications of locating the plant in a predominantly Black neighborhood in South Macon and the potential impacts on tourism and the forthcoming Ocmulgee Mounds National Park. One commenter stated: "I'd prefer not to be known as the trash capital of the world."
Still other Maconites demanded an environmental impact study, and Truelove pointed out that Brightmark “has not yet released the details of its operations, most importantly what toxins and pollutants will be released, both directly to nearby communities and indirectly as the resulting fuels are burned. We don’t even have that information from Brightmark’s lone facility in Ashley, Indiana, though we know that it caught fire six months into operation,” he said.