Plastic Pellet Industry Booming

Production of plastic pellets continues to accelerate in North America, according to a report outlining the industry’s growth.

More than 4.5 million tons of annual capacity has been added to polyethylene manufacturers — mostly in Texas and Louisiana — since 2017, according to Petrochemical Update. Polyethylene is sold in pellet form and converted into plastic goods like drink bottles, food containers and children’s toys.

At least 30 percent of that new U.S. capacity — 1.35 million tons — will be exported.

That has caught the attention of the State Ports Authority, which operates the Port of Charleston. The maritime agency hopes to capitalize on the growth by supporting construction of so-called transload facilities that will move the pellets — also known as nurdles — from the Gulf Coast to Charleston’s terminals for shipment overseas.

One of those facilities could set up shop at the former Carolina Nurseries site on U.S. Highway 52 near Moncks Corner. The authority recently set aside $750,000 to pay for roads, water lines and other infrastructure for the project known by code name “Project Monk.”

Barry Jurs, Berkeley County’s economic development director, said the company is willing to invest $61.5 million and create up to 60 jobs that pay an average of $21 per hour.

Some council members are worried about the amount of traffic the project would generate along the already-clogged highway and how that would affect the quality of life for residents of nearby neighborhoods.

There also are environmental concerns. Pellets transporter Frontier Logistics was cited in July for violating the state’s Pollution Control Act after a spill at its Charleston-based operation led to thousands of tiny pellets washing up on the beach at Sullivan’s Island.

Jim Newsome, the SPA’s president and CEO, estimates Project Monk could eventually bring 20,000 pellet-filled cargo containers to the port each year. That’s in addition to more than 32,000 containers brought to the port by Charleston-area companies like Frontier Logistics, A&R Bulk-Pak and Mid-States Packaging.

Plastic pellets are seen as a growth commodity for the Port of Charleston, which is trying to diversify its cargo base beyond manufacturing.

Recent data indicates there will be plenty of opportunity ahead.

North American polyethylene capacity is expected to increase from 23.15 million tons a year in 2018 to 33.82 million tons annually in 2023, according to GlobalData analysts. That will make North America the world’s second-largest producer, behind Asia.

“The new capacity spurred by both new construction and expansions is far from over,” Petrochemical Update says in its report. “A lot more is coming.”


By David Wren
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Oct 6, 2019 Updated 21 hrs ago