Environmental Groups to PureCycle: Leave East Winter Garden Alone!
Leaders of 50 nongovernmental organizations sent a letter requesting the corporation find a new location for its “unwelcome plastics facility”
Too close for comfort: PureCycle's planned plastics recycling center is just blocks from Maxey Elementary School, Shepherd's Hope, Zander Park, Maxey Community Center, the Impact Center, churches and homes.
The leaders of 50 environmental non-governmental organizations recently sent a letter to PureCycle Technologies’ chief executive, strongly urging him to “abandon” plans to open a plastics recycling facility in East Winter Garden.
The Sept. 6 letter was addressed to Dustin Olson, the company’s CEO, who took the helm in June. The letter was also sent to seven of PureCycle’s partners — including Jimmy Haslam of the Cleveland Browns; Mark Lamping, president of the Jacksonville Jaguars; David S. Taylor, executive chairman of Proctor & Gamble; and Steve Presley, CEO of Nestle USA.
First reported by the Plastic Pollution Coalition blog, the letter reads in part:
“We are concerned that an unwelcome plastic waste facility is located in a historically Black, economically disadvantaged community under the guise of creating a ‘sustainable’ and ‘circular’ economy. In reality, PureCycle’s choice and actions to push the location through constitute a social and environmental injustice. PureCycle’s troubling plan to override the community’s objections and bypass the city’s economic development standards would inflict numerous harms on residents and the environment while providing few local benefits.”
Among the signatories to the letter are Greenpeace, Sierra Club and the Surfrider Foundation.
When asked about the letter, a PureCycle spokesperson responded to VoxPopuli in an email:
“For nearly a year, PureCycle has worked closely with local Orange County and Winter Garden government officials to address any questions and concerns. Until very recently, officials seemed supportive of the facility being located at the present site which sits just outside of Winter Garden’s city limits. This central Florida site is the ideal setting to bring 21st century tech jobs to the area. In fact, we expect to create 30-40 well-paid, skilled jobs and hire East Winter Garden residents to fill them. We hoped local officials would want to bring jobs back to the City and provide opportunities to a neighborhood that has long been underserved.”
Jan Dell, a chemical engineer and founder of the Last Beach Cleanup, a California watchdog nonprofit dedicated to ending plastics pollution, spearheaded the letter-writing effort and gathered the signatures after receiving a Google Alert about Winter Garden’s fight to keep the recycler out of the city.
"I was hugely impressed by the community’s desire to protect their neighborhood,” Dell wrote in an email to VoxPopuli. “I was outraged by the bullying PureCycle tactics. I know how terrible a plastic trash sorting plant would be for a community. NO ONE should be forced to live next door to one.” Dell added it was easy to round up 50 signatures and could have easily gotten 50 more, but they wanted to send the letter out quickly. “All of the NGOs were outraged,” she wrote.
The outrage is driven in part by PureCycle’s determination to open a facility to sort, wash and shred polypropylene plastic — the ubiquitous #5 plastic found in everyday items from food packaging to toys — at the 851 Maple Street warehouse despite clear indications that the company was not welcome in East Winter Garden.
“This is something that belongs next to a landfill, not a community,” District 2 Commissioner Ron Mueller said at a July 14 city commission meeting. “We're talking about Winter Garden becoming the plastics dumping ground for the whole southeastern United States.”
Winter Garden has refused to supply PureCycle with the water necessary for its operations. It’s concerned about the volume of water that would be required and also that microplastics could leach into the city water supply, be discharged into Lake Apopka and potentially exacerbate algae blooms.
Jon Williams, Winter Garden’s city manager, said at the July 14 meeting, that PureCycle was never able to provide the city with their “waste-water characteristics” — in other words, which chemicals and plastics could potentially be in the company’s waste water. He also said that city staff had “major reservations” about what plastics might do to the technology in the city’s $50 million wastewater-treatment plant expansion.
The NGOs’ letter raised additional concerns about declining property values in East Winter Garden, potential fire hazards, odor from the facility, air quality, litter and increased truck traffic on roads shared by buses that take children to nearby Maxey Elementary School.
From the letter:
“Additional nuisances include offensive odors, burning eyes, shortness of breath, long term respiratory problems, and disruptive noises. PureCycle should not put this hazardous facility in a residential area for which it is not properly zoned.”
Dell expects that eventually PureCycle will back down and “stop trying to force a trash sorting plant into a community that has loudly stated that they do not want it.”
“PureCycle can easily look for another site that is nowhere near homes or schools and in a heavy industrial zone that welcomes it,” Dell wrote in her email.
Winter Garden officials had some initial discussions with PureCycle about the recycling facility. But the city backed off over concerns about "previously undisclosed information" regarding the chemicals the company would use to process the plastics and how PureCycle planned to use the facility. Additionally, city officials worried that plastics' flammability presented a fire hazard that PureCycle was ill-equipped to handle.
"It is the City's understanding that the Property does not even have adequate potable water for restroom facilities let alone enough water pressure for PureCycle's fire suppression requirements," City Manager Jon Williams wrote in a July 14 letter to Chris Testerman, deputy county administrator, obtained by VoxPopuli through a public records request.
"The City questions the legality of PureCycle's current water source, which comes from an adjacent property owner and not the City. Our public safety concerns are based upon the fact that plastic is highly flammable and can create toxic pollution if a fire erupts, putting our community and firefighters at risk."
PureCycle has permits to build out the interior of the warehouse on Maple Street because the company bypassed the city, without officials' knowledge, and sought zoning approval from Orange County. (PureCycle's location, in a pocket of unincorporated Orange County surrounded by Winter Garden, is not zoned for heavy industry.) The zoning request was originally denied by the County Zoning Division’s Chief Planner in August 2021. A month later, the division’s manager reversed the decision.
In May, Winter Garden appealed the county’s zoning decision, but was denied. The city then took steps in July to legally challenge the county’s decision, starting with a conflict assessment meeting. The next step would be a joint public meeting. The city commission also authorized its city manager to file a lawsuit against Orange County, if necessary, to prevent PureCycle from operating. Williams has also requested a stop-work order be issued for PureCycle's build-out or that the county provide documentation that there is no fire hazard at the warehouse.
Asked about a potential lawsuit, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings told VoxPopuli, “I don’t know where they’re going to end up at the end of the day. I don’t know whether PureCycle is going to be able to do their work or not. But you want businesses to invest in your community for the longevity and the betterment of your community. But sometimes, the community, it may not work.”