2020-12-16

Metal and COVID snags developments at Sustane Technologies

by JANET WHITMAN

  • <p>FILE PHOTO</p><p>Sustane Technologies CEO Peter Vinall at an event at the Chester plant in August, 2019, where it was announced the company was receiving $358,750 from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.</p>

The Chester recycling plant with the game-changing goal of repurposing nearly 90 per cent of garbage destined for the landfill has run into an unexpected foil: chunks of metal.

The Halifax-headquartered start-up behind the plant off Highway 14, Sustane Technologies Inc. needs to install a new piece of equipment to weed out discarded brake drums, calipers, steel shafts and other industrial metal parts that were wreaking havoc with the main shredder, says its co-founder and CEO Peter Vinall. It's a key cog in a system designed to break down and separate bags of trash before turning them into biomass fuel pellets, synthetic diesel and recyclable materials.

Adding the "bag opener," and delays generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, are slowing Sustane's plan to secure deals to roll out similar recycling plants in other parts of North America and beyond.

"It's taking longer than we expected and it's costing more, which is not unusual for a start-up with new technology," Vinall tells LighthouseNow.

"The most important point, however, is that we have met these challenges and will be ramping up now through 2021."

Sustane has letters of intent to set up in three other jurisdictions, he says. But first, the operation, which is set up at the Kaizer Meadow Solid Waste Management Facility and is the product of a 2016 pact with the Municipality of Chester, needs to show it can work around the clock.

The plant had to close for a couple of months amid the pandemic. Its 16 employees there and another five at head office were back to work in June when wage subsidies and other funding kicked in.

"COVID has had a big impact because we've had to rely on suppliers from all over the world," says Vinall. "We were literally starting to ramp up when COVID hit."

Pre-COVID, Sustane was heavily reliant on international suppliers and experts.

"The silver lining is we've had to learn it ourselves now," says Vinall. "Learning it the hard way has put us in good stead."

With its debut, Sustane estimated it would spend $16 million to build its Chester plant. The company is covering the cost with backing of around $10 million so far from private investors as well as millions from government.

The payoff comes when tipping fees from the municipality and revenue generated from by-products outweigh operating costs.

That math still adds up. The Chester operation could be cash flow positive in six months, says Vinall, an Australia-born engineer who started Sustane after meeting inventor Javier De La Fuente in Spain. The Halifax commercial real-estate veteran Rob Richardson joined as a third co-founder and partner.

The estimated cost to build a plant has climbed to $30 million, according to Vinall.

Still, the prototype has taught the team a lot, including ways to save money.

"We have a new version which is 20 per cent different than what we have in Chester," Vinall says. "That design is being completed now."

Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, Sustane is looking to partner with a large-scale manufacturer in the waste engineering space to build the bulk of its equipment.

"We looked back at everything and 70 per cent of our equipment in our plant is readily available," says Vinall. "We don't need to be experts in that, we just need to be experts in the part we do."

Sustane has a long-term agreement with Chester to take the waste destined for the landfill. That's happening now on a trial basis and the plant's been up and running four days a week for testing.

Full-time operation didn't make sense with the potential damage to the shredder.

Vinall says the industrial metal, hidden in black garbage bags, shouldn't be in the trash.

"We cannot see it to remove it," he says. "It was discovered fairly quickly but took some time to design and procure the best solution."

The $750,000 fix is coming from Germany and the United States.

With the new equipment, Sustane expects to start operating on a sustained and continuous basis in February.

"At the end of the day, Chester has to run in a stable manner before we turn to any other projects," says Vinall. "We need to get to continuous operation for a few months. We've not been in a position to do that because of damage from the metal."

Vinall says Sustane is generating interest from elsewhere in Atlantic Canada, Ontario and British Columbia, the United States and internationally. He wouldn't offer any specifics, citing confidentiality agreements.

Prospective partners and customers were queued up to visit the plant. COVID meant Vinall and his crew had to shift gears.

"We have high resolution cameras that operations used that we've been able to use to do video tours," says Vinall, who's endured three self-isolation periods as he travels between his home in Langley, B.C. to his day job in Nova Scotia. "That has really been a saviour. It's kept our customers involved and engaged."

The Chester plant has been successful in producing biomass pellets and is awaiting environmental permits for the synthetic diesel it can generate from discarded plastics. The latter can't run commercially without the Department of Environment signing off.

Another big potential waste-saver and revenue stream is the chemical recycling of low-value plastics, such as cling-film, into fuel or feed stock to make new plastics.

"China and other Asian countries did us a favour by refusing to take low-value plastics," says Vinall.

While Canada and most of the western world managed to keep the products from their landfills, they were creating an environmental disaster in Asia as mom-and-pop operations attempted to process them, he says.

With no market, the products are going from blue bags here to landfills.

"With our process, we can turn that into a chemical - a hydrocarbon - that can be used to make more plastic," says Vinall.

He acknowledges criticism from environmental groups that the use of plastics should be discouraged, instead of making more plastic. But he adds that there isn't a viable, affordable, convenient alternative.

"We've banned plastic supermarket bags. That's a good start. But a lot of stuff is wrapped in plastic," he says.

Vinall figured the potential market for repurposed low-value plastic was at least two years out - until large petrochemical companies started calling.

"We're running trials and sent samples off for feedback," he says.

"I don't want to create the impression that we are somehow taking materials that should be recycled or removing the imperative to recycle," he says. "We're creating a circular economy for plastic that's in the garbage now that's low value and has no home anymore."

Janet Whitman is a contributing editor for Advocate Printing.

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