ASHLEY — Steve Christman has seen numerous proposals from entrepreneurs over the years aimed at waste reduction and recycling in the nearly three decades he’s been the executive director of the Northeast Indiana Solid Waste Management District.

Out of all of the ideas, most of which could never come up with the right numbers on the revenue end to make them viable, along comes RES Polyflow, now Brightmark Energy, with technology that will take waste plastic and convert it to fuels, industrial wax and naptha.

And the numbers worked, resulting in a multi-million dollar plant that’s under construction near the Klink Companies campus just east of Interstate 69, on the north side of C.R. 800S in Steuben County, which is scheduled to open later in 2020.

Like nothing that’s passed Christman’s office before, what Brightmark is doing is going to change the shape of resource management, particularly plastic waste, in northeast Indiana.

It took some time, like 10 years, but the numbers — to the tune of $260 million on the investment side — worked and in May, San Francisco-based Brightmark broke ground. After going at break-neck speed and dodging much rain along the way, the building is being built at a fast clip.

“We’d been talking with them at least 10 years,” Christman said. Finally, Christman was told by RES Polyflow’s Michael Dungan that Steuben County was in the running to be the site of this first commercial waste-to-fuel plant in America.

“We were talking about it and (Dungan) said, ‘By the way, Steuben, just down from you, is one of those three sites. I go, ‘Oh, well you’re finally going to look at a nice place where us God-fearing people live and settle in paradise, aren’t you?’ And he just laughed. But it wasn’t but a few months later and they said, ‘we want to go to Steuben. This is where we’re going to go,’” Christman said.

The plant will use a state-of-the-art, plastics-to-fuel process that sustainably recycles waste that has reached the end of its useful life — including items that cannot readily be recycled, like plastic film, flexible packing, styrofoam and children’s toys — directly into useful products, like fuels and wax. Ultimately, the outputs of this technology could also be used to produce the feedstocks necessary for manufacturing plastic again, thus creating the world’s first truly circular economy technology for plastics.

Like a lot of what Christman does, he’s always on the look out for markets for recyclables that will best serve the district. He develops and instructs on composting. He has implemented the installation of convenience centers to serve large numbers of residents of DeKalb, LaGrange, Noble and Steuben counties that make up the Waste District so they have one-stop places to take their recyclables. They’re efficient and a practical alternative to curbside recycling in rural areas. A final convenience center, for Kendallville, is in the planning stages.

And like any other company that would approach him, Christman is working with Brightmark to identify the raw material — waste plastic that currently goes to recycling processors, landfills or used to be (used to be) shipped to China for final processing. China has all but shut the door on accepting waste plastic, leaving the United States looking for new ways to deal with plastic waste.

Hello, Brightmark Energy.

On a recent afternoon, Christman talked about the many ways northeast Indiana is going to feed local plastic waste to the plant.

Much of the plastic waste is a no-brainer, the obvious forms of waste.

But when you look out to the northeast Indiana region, there are many things that are unique to the area that also must find a place to go once their intended use is complete.

Think of these:

• The shrink wrap that marinas use to protect boats in winter storage, or that same wrap that covers boats when marinas take delivery of new models. It can go to Brightmark. In a nine-county area, there are more than 30 marinas, thanks to the area’s inland lakes.

• The plastic wrap that covers certain agriculture products, like hay or silage. There’s a lot of material from the agricultural industry that could end up at Brightmark, Christman said.

• Plastic waste from plastics processors, of which northeast Indiana has an abundance. Think of this: when a stamped plastic piece is cut from its mold, there’s waste that falls away. If it doesn’t have to be landfilled, that lowers the cost of production.

Brightmark takes a big picture view of the project yet realizes that it will have an impact locally beyond the 130 people that will be put to work and the eventual tax impact it will have on Ashley and Steuben County.

“BME is implementing a positively disruptive technology that will change the face of the world. Since Ashely, Indiana, is our home for this first commercial plant, we believe it will provide local entrepreneurial opportunities that can then be transferred on a global level,” said Jay Schabel, president of Brightmark Energy Plastics Division. “These opportunities exist in gathering and processing the plastic waste, finding new markets and uses for the products from our plant, improving the efficiency and carbon footprint of plants and many other areas that can be envisioned for a new industry that enables the use of an entirely new raw material; recall that we are taking plastics previously destined for landfills.”

Schabel said much is riding on the outcome of the first plant, which Brightmark President Bob Powell said could lead to an expansion soon at the Ashley plant.

“It is an exciting opportunity for the community and for Brightmark. That is why it is imperative that we focus first on the success of this plant,” Schabel said.

Christman said Brightmark represents an economic development project that is going “to cure some significant environmental problems. That’s what’s so exciting about it.”

The Ashley facility will be the first of its kind to take mixed-waste, single-use plastics and convert them into usable products at commercial scale. The facility will initially convert approximately 100,000 tons of plastics into more than 18 million gallons a year of ultra-low sulfur diesel and naphtha blend stocks and nearly 6 million gallons a year of commercial grade wax in a process that is expected to be 93% efficient.

BP will purchase the fuels produced by the facility, and AM WAX will purchase commercial grade waxes produced in the process.

A total of 136 full-time manufacturing jobs will be created when all phases of the 112,000-square-foot facility are operational. Initially the plant will start off with 70 employees when it starts operations late in 2020.

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