Like any visionary, Milton E. Hazel doesn't see what is, but what can be.
The vice president of operations for Aiken-based Environmental Control Systems Inc. is out to change the world and his community with some cutting-edge environmental concepts.
Knock on plastic composite wood.
He and the others at his environmental engineering firm predict widespread use of their new composite material, which can be manipulated like wood but can be produced for one-third the cost.
Because the material is made from plastics and other non-biodegradable materials, producing it may begin as part of their patented aerobic, or air induction, process to conserve landfill space.
Both the composite wood and the landfill maintenance approach have proved viable through research, although neither has been executed on a mass scale, Mr. Hazel said.
The plastic wood product doesn't even have a name yet. And it could undergo several formulations before it is introduced to the public.
The landfill reduction process is a bit further along. The Environmental Protection Agency recently named Environmental Control as an "Industry Ally," a virtual endorsement for its aerobic landfill technology.
What makes the innovations even sweeter is that Mr. Hazel is focusing the technology in his own community, the Midland Valley region of Aiken County, at an abandoned textile plant that was once one of the area's most hazardous environmental sites.
Mr. Hazel sees a bustling future at the normally quiet property of the old Clearwater Finishing Plant, located on 64 acres off U.S. Highway 1. He sees an industrial park filled with tenants united by a common theme: environmental protection.
The park will be called the Clearwater Resource Recovery and Technology Center. If all goes as planned, the fledgling concept will serve as a home for environment-oriented industries, an educational facility and possibly the corporate headquarters for Environmental Control.
Mr. Hazel said the site will need outside partners and investors to be developed significantly.
"What we're trying to do for the first time is create a synergistic industrial park, not just another industrial park," Mr. Hazel said. "The common denominator is environmental. Each company can feed off the other."
While Mr. Hazel waits for his dream of an eco-park to be realized, his company pushes forward in its plans to make a cheap building product out of recycled materials.
Landfills have a nasty way of filling up quickly. They also create potentially combustible methane as a byproduct of their repose. Environmental Control's aerobic landfill system injects air and moisture into landfills, turning their content into a compost form. In doing so, it significantly reduces methane buildup and allows organic material to degrade.
The 30-40 percent that remains is "dirty, co-mingled plastic - the stuff that didn't degrade," Mr. Hazel said. The material, which includes chunks of carpet, wood, plastic foam and higher-grade plastic, is filtered though screens and separated.
It is then ground and compressed to form the composite wood.
"You can glue it, screw it, paint it ..." Mr. Hazel said. "You can't stain it, of course. We think there is a tremendous market there."
Although the composite material is not suitable for all wood applications, it is well-suited for use as inexpensive landscape timbers and fence posts because it is inert and does not rot.
He said his product can be produced more cheaply than imitation-wood products already on the market. Much of the product's savings stem from the fact the raw materials used to produce it are free.
The American Plastics Council, which supports recycling, was not familiar with Mr. Hazel's proposed product and was skeptical of its feasibility.
"Alien material like chunks of wood may make the extruded material unpredictable," said Robert Krebs, the council's communication director. "I'm not saying it's impossible. I wish him well. ... The money he'll save in getting free material that way is money he'll have to spend in washing and sorting."
Mr. Hazel maintains that laborious washing and sorting will not be necessary and that additional waste plastic or rubber can be added to the mix to give the product properties fit for various applications.
With only about half of the plastic in America being recycled, and many local communities struggling with overflowing dumps, landfills could become a virtual gold mine of raw material, Mr. Hazel said.
Highly organic landfills where materials are pre-separated can expect to recover up to 90 percent of its space through the aerobic process on which Environmental Control has patents, he said.
Some of the pilot landfill sites the company used to test the technology were in Aiken and surrounding counties.
"We are two or three years ahead of the competition," Mr. Hazel said. "We're playing with all the big boys. So this little old company in Aiken is big time."
The company plans to place the first central processing facility for the composite plastic wood on the industrial park's campus.
Environmental Control already has inked its first tenant for the environmental park, RBW Logistics. The company uses a 62,000-square-foot warehouse on the property to store used carpet for Evergreen Nylon Recycling LLC, which turns the material into caprolactam, the main ingredient of Nylon 6 and a raw material used in a variety of speciality plastics.
Getting that first tenant was an arduous process.
The Clearwater Plant, once a thriving job-provider for the town under United Merchants and Manufacturing, went bankrupt in 1989 and fell abandoned. The chemicals the company used to make fabric prints and designs were allowed to sit idle after the abandonment, and the situation was aggravated further by vandals.
"This was what they call a brownfield project," Mr. Hazel explained: "An abandoned commercial or industrial facility that has a real or perceived environmental problem or stigma attached to it."
Interest from potential buyers dimmed when they realized a purchase could make them partially liable for the mandated $1.26 million cleanup. But hope for the property brightened with the state Voluntary Cleanup Program legislation signed into law earlier this year.
Under the law, Environmental Control was able to voluntarily take title to the property and clean it up without being held responsible for pre-existing environmental liability issues.
That's exactly what the company did, having already performed most of the cleanup, first under oversight of the EPA and then under the state's Department of Health and Environmental Control.
The company purchased the property from the Aiken County Forfeited Land Commission for $366,000. But with closing costs, continued environmental maintenance and additional investment, Environmental Control has invested significantly more than $1 million, Mr. Hazel said.
Just add water
Lucrative opportunities exist within the compound's 800,000 square feet under roof. One of them, a dormant water plant fed by a natural spring, may benefit the surrounding community more than the mill's new owners.
The idle plant, capable of producing 5 million gallons of water per day, would be a much-needed commodity for the Breezy Hill and Midland Valley communities.
Lack of access to water and sewers, in particular, has slowed new development, and the communities frequently implement watering restrictions in the summer. Mr. Hazel said he wants to study how water could be made available at an affordable cost.
"We're not a utility," he said. "We don't want to get into that. We would just make water, drinking water - clear water, if you will.
The site's environmental rehabilitation history combined with its on-site resources and the knowledge of the company's staff would make the development an appropriate industrial training center where students could learn waste treatment and remediation techniques.
"You know how a teaching hospital works?" he asked. "Well, we're going to have a water plant. So what we're going to do is have a teaching water plant."
As chairman of the Aiken County Technical Preparatory Consortium, Mr. Hazel said he has approached Aiken Technical College and the Aiken County Career Center about possible tie-ins, but no formal agreements have been reached.
Other uses for the property could include climate-controlled self-storage and an excess equipment sales operation. Retail and restaurants could even pop up if portions of the property were subdivided.
The green stuff
Mr. Hazel has the financial backing of the other members of his engineering firm and moral support from the Midland Valley Chamber of Commerce.
"It's going to be a real asset to our community," said chamber Executive Director Gloria Busch Johnson. "They have our 100 percent unanimous support for the project they are doing. When Milt (Hazel) came and talked to us, the vision he had just blew me away. I'm a dreamer, but it just blew me away."
Mr. Hazel said Environmental Control is looking for further capital infusions. He said the Aiken County Council has considered possible development incentives, and local legislators are helping the firm pursue grant opportunities.
As the list of tenants grows, the firm will be able to leverage additional projects, he said. But so far, the venture has not used government subsidies of any kind.
"We've spent a significant chunk of change on our own," Mr. Hazel said. "That's our commitment. At the (chamber) town hall meeting, I looked them right in the eye and said `This is what I'm going to do, what are you going to do?' It's time for the community to ante up."
Mr. Hazel said he expects his investments will pay off, in time, for both his company and the surrounding community.
"It's all about money, make no mistake about it," Mr. Hazel said. "We are for-profit."
Reach Eric Williamson at (706) 828-3904.