Upstate innovators are taking the lead in eco-innovation


blaine childress bylineSpring clearly asserted itself in February this year. There were about a dozen days with highs in the 70s and at least one reaching 80 degrees. But just a few decades ago, February yielded a very different, bitterly cold experience to a Southerner like me.

The climate is changing – quickly and steadily. The seas are becoming warmer and more acidic. Global emissions of carbon dioxide have increased almost 50 percent just since 1990. Deforestation and burning fossil fuels are damaging the ecosystem.

The technology response to higher greenhouse gas emissions and dwindling natural resources may be seen daily. Photovoltaic (PV) solar panels that generate clean electricity are not only evident along I-85 in front of the BMW Zentrum, but increasingly on the rooftops of residential houses.

Significant sustainability innovations are thriving in South Carolina. Hubbell, the largest manufacturer of residential lighting in North America, is steadily advancing innovations in energy-efficient LED lighting. And as previously reported in this magazine, Greenville inventor Jerry Barber is realizing his vision of using a wheel-mounted wind turbine to produce electricity. Rather than more familiar blade-and-hub turbines, Barberwind Turbines employ a rim-driven generator that continues to literally redefine the electrical power landscape. Meanwhile, Proterra is promoting clean air by building electrically powered buses that compete with diesel and compressed methane.

These eco-friendly technologies are significant. But what is being done to address solid waste?

The landfill along Highway 29 is among the tallest man-made structures in Spartanburg County. And this mountain grows steadily larger. While a majority of it is food and other urban waste, a portion of the mountain’s content is postindustrial and residential polymer plastic derived from petroleum, whose value should be reclaimed.

Leigh Fibers, in Wellford, could be appropriately described as a sustainability pioneer. For about 100 years, Leigh has applied sustainable product engineering to reclaim and repurpose polymer waste. Its history is grounded in transforming textile waste into branded and specialty products that are sold worldwide. Since its beginning, Leigh has diverted more than 14 billion pounds of textile waste and byproducts from landfills. Leigh also operates ICE Recycling in Lake City, S.C., which reprocesses postindustrial polymer waste, corrugated paper, and metals for Southeast and Mid-Atlantic companies. The company provides both on-site waste-stream management as well as off-site reprocessing services.

One Leigh division, SmartVista, has recently introduced a product and a delivery system that is so innovative that it was recognized with a 2016 InnoVision Technology Award. SmartVista reprocesses polymeric and textile waste and incorporates this into a high-value, specialized emergency response system. The resulting SpillArmor RDS system converts polymer waste into a rapidly deployed absorbent “boom.” The clever dispensing method (think of a parachute or a rope bag) allows 100 feet of multi-stranded absorbent barrier to be fully deployed within 30 seconds.

SpillArmor utilizes netted flat absorbent recycled fiber bundles that wind into a helix while being deployed. Their innovative specialty fiber braid permits a rope-like structure to maintain a stable 5-inch diameter while it is being dispensed. Moreover, the twisted braid-like formation enhances hazardous spill absorption into the center.

Unlike previous heavy bulky absorbent booms, the SpillArmor duffle bag-like system weighs less than 17 pounds, and can be readily stored on fire trucks and other emergency vehicles. Previous absorbent media were too bulky to keep on fire trucks, but the new Leigh system permits first responders to contain dangerous spreading flammable or chemical spills within seconds of arrival. Leigh technology therefore may be viewed as supporting environmental stewardship by both repurposing solid waste, as well as by protecting communities and waters from the spread of spilled hazardous and flammable liquids.

Human activity is impacting Earth’s ecological balance, but local companies are responding with innovative solutions that are addressing significant sustainability challenges.



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