Major Plot Twist in the SHIP Show

I’ve been paying pretty close attention to this drama I think of as the The Albert Barbusci Show, but I must have missed the episode where we asked Barbusci, our port promoter and the CEO of Sydney Harbour Investment Partners (SHIP), to identify a company with an untested method of converting plastic waste to fuel and convince it to set up shop on our harbor.

Albert Barbusci

Albert Barbusci

I regret this, both because it suggests I’ve been remiss as a reporter but also because if the writers actually managed to make sense of that plot twist, it must have been one hell of an episode.

The first I heard of it was when Barbusci issued a press release (his favorite form of communication and the only form in which the deep-water Novaporte and the adjacent logistics park Novazone exist) announcing he’d entered into a joint venture with Michigan-based QCI, LLC as part of what he’s calling his “Green Design Strategy.” The joint venture is called “NOVARe” because the person writing the press release didn’t notice they had the caps lock on until it was almost too late.

I have lots to say about this development, but first I’d like to cut to the chase and point out what this latest announcement says about the status of Barbusci’s port project.

While the press release quotes Dean P. Rose of QCI as saying:

NOVARe is the ideal location for our waste plastics-to-fuel conversion industry. It gives us the opportunity to process waste streams from many regions delivered by ship, rail or road transportation. Additionally, it allows us to export our renewable fuels and chemicals via the same network.

And Barbusci himself saying:

“A deep-water port, adjacent to a large logistics park within a Foreign Trade Zone is a winning combination that few legacy ports on the eastern seaboard can provide. We have it.


Our goal is to provide the green fuels, energy, lubricants and other products, as well the supporting infrastructure that our shipping, ro-ro and bulk partners require.

When pressed on the project by the CBC’s Holly Conners:

Barbusci said the project does not hinge on the development of a container terminal, as the plastics and other waste can be brought to the site by truck.

And suddenly I realized: this is not a prestige drama like The Wire with a carefully planned five-year story arc. This a reality show where the editors have to do the best they can each week with whatever material they have.

This, dear readers, is a SHIP show.


Moving parts

To recap: the man we’ve entrusted with promoting the development of a container terminal in our harbor is busying himself with a joint venture that doesn’t “hinge” on the development of a container terminal in our harbor.

Albert Barbusci (rear left) looks on as CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke and Fu Bin, party secretary, vice chairman of the Port of Dalian Group Co. Ltd sign sister city agreement. December 2015.

Albert Barbusci (rear left) looks on as CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke and Fu Bin, party secretary, vice chairman of the Port of Dalian Group Co. Ltd sign sister city agreement. December 2015.

Instead, he’s chosen to focus on the logistics park adjacent to the terminal in what I have to think is a classically unwise relative positioning of horse and cart. Logistics parks sometimes spring up around deep-water ports, but do deep-water ports spring up next to logistics parks? Moreover, I’m suddenly realizing that we’ve inadvertently given Barbusci carte blanche to populate this logistics park, which is already proving problematic.

Of course, he doesn’t get to buy the land on which the logistics park is located until he’s  brought together all the parts necessary to establish a container terminal and he keeps bringing together all the wrong parts: we need a shipper and a terminal operator, he’s brought us a terminal operator (although there is no longer any mention of Ports America on the Novaporte website), a Chinese sister city, a tugboat operator and a shipbreaking outfit — it’s like we sent him out to get the ingredients for a Caesar salad and he came back with croutons, two eggplants and a bottle of Orange Crush.

And now, with Business Minister Geoff MacLellan saying loudly and clearly that he needs to see significant progress on the container terminal development if the province is to continue paying Genesee & Wyoming (G&W) up to $60,000 a month so it won’t apply to abandon the Cape Breton section of its railway, Barbusci has launched himself into a joint venture that doesn’t require a functioning railway.

That, combined with the legal fees we’ve been paying to allow G&W to migrate land preparatory to sale suggests the Novaporte dream is about to come to an end.

Although the nightmare seems set to continue — with the encouragement, it seems, of Membertou Chief Terry Paul, who is quoted in the press release as saying:

“As active partners in SHIP, the reduced carbon footprint of our facilities is key to the sustainability of the project moving forward,” said Chief Terry Paul of Membertou. “Ensuring we’re doing all we can to protect our resources and our communities is a Mi’kmaq value we hold closely. We’re pleased to continue on this project with environmental efficiency at its forefront.”

I’ve asked Paul (through his communications person) what he knows about QCI’s technology and whether he’s concerned about any of the potential environmental downsides to trucking in plastic waste for conversion to fuel by means of a process that has yet to be tried in any other municipality. I was promised answers by press time, but I have yet to receive them.

For the record, QCI has a building in Livonia, Michigan — located about an hour from Detroit — in which it has installed one plastics-to-fuel system. It recently received permission from the Michigan Strategic Fund board for “$60 million in private activity bond financing” to expand its plant to six processing systems capable of handling 100,000 tons of plastic waste annually.

The plant itself has two employees but according to its website, QCI has nine executives — one is a chemist, one has a background in “nuclear physics and metallurgy and organic chemistry” and the rest have business backgrounds unrelated to the plastic-to-fuels industry.

The site lists an additional seven “Scientists, Engineers & Specialists,” but I noticed that the environmental and pollution control specialists are “advisers,” while the other five all seem to be responsible for the operation of the plant.


Lack of information

You may find it odd that I would object to a businessman going “green,” which is what Barbusci claims to be doing with this latest joint venture, which will see the development of a “park within a park” — a green tech park dedicated to “nurturing and commercializing the latest green technologies” within Novazone.

You might point out that I was bellyaching just last week, in these very pages, about the lack of municipal action on climate change and our solid waste problem. But my realization last week was that the answer to our solid waste problem is to use less plastic, and I’m not sure this technology proposed by QCI, even if it works as advertised (a big “if”), will encourage us to use less plastic. I fear it might encourage us to use more, given that it needs a steady supply of plastic to succeed.

It’s also very difficult to figure out just what this technology of QCI’s is. The website is not very helpful:

QCI has invented the only solution for global recycling and repurposing one of Earth’s most significant human contributing waste stream problems – Waste Plastic.

QCI-PCF™ applies its state-of-the-art technology to convert non-recycled waste plastic into valuable commodities. Utilizing our patented Transmolecular™ process, QCI-PCF™ produces high-end ASTM qualified “green” chemicals, fuels and solvents.  This process produces clean, recycled, low sulfur, high lubricity byproducts such as D-Fuel™ to be used in the petroleum fuel industry for off-road diesel and fuel oil engines.

And the accompanying video? Well, it brought back childhood memories of Mr. Potato Head and Lite-Brite but it didn’t tell me much about how QCI turns waste plastic into fuel:

See what I mean? Chips of plastic are dumped into a hopper, pass through a series of tubes and tanks and come out as mason jars of what looks like — let’s face it — urine. (I think it’s actually supposed to be bio-diesel.)

And while QCI is liberal with it use of the “TM” symbol and claims to have patented its process, I couldn’t find any evidence of a patent filed by QCI with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). This could be down to the patent having been filed by an individual or a related entity, so my findings are not definitive.

But I also searched for QCI’s various trademarks and I couldn’t find them in the USPTO data base or the Michigan trademark database, which is maintained by the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA). Fearing this was a function of my own poor search techniques, I contacted both USPTO and LARA to ask about the trademarks and was told — by very helpful employees in both cases — that neither organization had any record of the trademarks. (Michigan told me that not only were those terms not trademarked, there was “no record of trademarks or service marks with QCI, LLC as the applicant on file with the Corporations Division.”)

I asked Adango Miadonye, a professor of chemical engineering and industrial chemistry at Cape Breton University what he could tell about QCI’s process from its website and he told me, in an email:

I have gone through the information on their website, and…there is very little information on the process to make any tangible assessment. I have to rely on my own expertise and experience, having consulted closely with a similar company in Calgary with its head office in Chicago for several years, that the transformation of waste plastics and rubber (tires) to the fanciful bio diesel products exhibited in the company website is a far cry from realization. The product form is usually a thick slurry, and further refining and processing yields [a] low percent refined product and [a] higher percent of carbon waste product. On its own, the process is arguably not sustainable. I will be able to give a proper assessment if I have more details of how this particular technology works and how it differs from others that have failed to succeed.

I also verified with Prof. Miadonye that the type of process QCI is describing is called “pyrolysis.” Miadonye agreed that “pyrolysis” is the correct term, but added that pyrolysis is not a new process and that QCI must “do something different after pyrolysis” to achieve what it claims to have  achieved.



Employees at QCI's Livonia, Michigan plastic waste-to-fuels plant.

Employees at QCI’s Livonia, Michigan plastic waste-to-fuels plant.

I don’t know what Chicago-based company Prof. Miadonye worked with in Calgary, but I’ve discovered that Alberta is home to a number of plastic waste-to-fuels projects — or at least, dreams.

The one that seems to have received the most media attention recently is Cielo Waste Solutions Corp., which is in the process of commissioning a “waste-to-fuel refinery” in Aldersyde, Alberta, about 25km south of Calgary.

Calgary Herald columnist Licia Corbella gave the enterprise, founded by president and CEO Don Allen, a glowing review after its grand opening in July, although her explanation of the process itself, which she characterized as a “proprietary thermal catalytic depolymerization technology that is patent pending,” left something to be desired:

After a complicated discussion about molecules, negative ions, etc., basically Cielo has developed a synthetic rock that is ground down to a talcum-like powder to become their highly secret catalyst that is added to all kinds of garbage — including contaminated plastic — and out comes fuel.

The flurry of launch coverage included announcements that Cielo would partner with an investors group, Renewable U, to build additional plants in Grande Prairie, Medicine Hat, Brooks and Lethbridge. Then, in September, came news that Cielo had introduced design enhancements that were being “tested and commissioned” and that it was awaiting delivery of “additional instrumentation and equipment.” During this time, the refinery had been “operating on an intermittent basis, allowing for shutdowns where required.”

On October 1, the Medicine Hat News reported that:

A date to finalize a partnership to build renewable diesel refineries in Medicine Hat and three other locations in southern Alberta has been pushed off until the end of the year.

Cielo Waste Solutions made the announcement Monday, which was the latest definitive date for agreements with an investors group for the facilities that purportedly [emphasis mine] convert bio-mass and other waste products like tires, plastic and railway ties into fuel.

So I guess we’ll just have to stay tuned. (While waiting to see what happens to Cielo, I thought I’d take a look at what environmentalists make of waste-to-fuel technologies — I’ve reported on my findings in a separate story.)


Cancel culture

So what does that mean for us?

Well, I think it means that a plant like the one Barbusci has simply announced he’s building on the shores of our harbor is a project that needs to be discussed by the citizens as part of larger discussions of what we can do to combat climate change and how we can reduce our use of plastics.

It might be that a waste-to-fuel plant makes sense for a municipality that is, as I write, stockpiling tonnes of film plastic. But it might also be that QCI’s unproven technology is not our best option.

One thing is crystal clear to me, though, and that is that this is not a decision for our Montreal-based advertising executive turned port promoter to make for us, so I’m just going to come right out and say it:

It’s time to cancel The Albert Barbusci Show.