Greenhouse gas emissions from a single chemical plant that manufactures nylon in northern Florida were greater than the emissions of a million automobiles in 2019, according to the latest data published by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Ascend Performance Materials facility, 10 miles north of Pensacola on the west bank of the Escambia River in the town of Cantonment, promised last year to cut emissions of a potent greenhouse gas in half in 2020, and eliminate nearly all such emissions by early 2022. Now, one of the Ascend’s customers is wondering if the company’s emissions reduction plan is on track and is calling for greater transparency from the company.
Ascend’s Pensacola plant is the largest source of nitrous oxide emissions in the country, emitting thousands of tons of the climate super-pollutant each year, according to data the company self-reports to the EPA.
Nitrous oxide, the same “laughing gas” given at a dentist’s office, is nearly 300 times more potent in warming the planet than carbon dioxide. The gas is an unwanted byproduct resulting from the production of adipic acid, a key ingredient in nylon manufacturing.
In 2018, Ascend abated 75 percent of its nitrous oxide, or N2O, emissions. However, the remaining emissions from the plant still equaled the greenhouse gas emissions of 2.1 million automobiles.
Low-cost abatement technology that can reduce 95 percent or more of a plant’s N2O emissions has existed for decades but is not required under state or federal law. The existence of that technology, readily available, means the plant could further control or eliminate its significant nitrous oxide emissions and have an immediate and outsized impact in efforts to combat climate change.
When Inside Climate News first asked company officials about the plant’s emissions last year, Vikram Gopal, Ascend’s senior vice president for technology, said the company would reduce its nitrous oxide emissions by 50 percent in 2020 and by 95 percent by early 2022.
The EPA has since updated its annual emissions data for the plant. But the agency’s data has a lag time of one to two years. In 2019, the most current year for which data is now available, Ascend’s plant emitted 16,451 metric tons of nitrous oxide, a 50 percent reduction in emissions from the year before. However, the emissions reductions from 2018 to 2019 were likely the result of decreased production at the plant and were not likely due to any new pollution controls, which Gopal said they planned to install by mid 2020.
Alison Jahn, a spokesperson for the company, said that Ascend “made the investments to achieve the anticipated reductions that we discussed with you last year. As we plan additional improvements, we will communicate those publicly.”
She declined to say whether the company achieved its goal of a 50 percent reduction in emissions through new pollution controls in 2020, or whether it is on track to reduce emissions by 95 percent by early 2022.
In February, the company submitted plans for a “phase 1” emissions reduction project with the Climate Action Reserve, a greenhouse gas registry that facilitates the sale of carbon offsets, according to information on the Reserve’s website. The Reserve, a nonprofit organization, recently included nitrous oxide emission reductions from adipic acid plants as eligible for offset credits.
Ascend stated in its proposal that it had already begun emissions reductions as of Jan. 20, 2021. Jahn did not respond to a request for additional information about the emissions reduction plan submitted to the Reserve or the project’s current status.
Executives at Universal Fiber Systems are watching closely. The company’s specialties include taking raw nylon fiber and dyeing it to make different colored fibers that are then used in carpets and other products, including National Football League jerseys.
“We are supportive and encouraging to Ascend in their journey, but want to underscore the need for progress,” said Brendan McSheehy, vice president of innovation and intellectual property at Universal Fiber Systems.
McSheehy described Universal Fiber Systems as a “large, significant and long standing customer” of Ascend’s, but noted that Ascend is not the company’s only nylon supplier.
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Universal Fibers, a subsidiary of Universal Fiber Systems, supplies nylon yarn to flooring companies that turn the yarn into carpet used in both commercial and residential buildings. The mills they sell to work directly with architectural and design firms that often request products meeting certain sustainability standards such as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, green building standard.
“They will say, ‘We are putting in a new building in a downtown area in California and we want to be LEED Gold or LEED Platinum,’” said Ranae Anderson, global sustainability leader for Universal Fibers. “They will tell the mill, ‘We want a sustainable carpet with X amount of recycled product or less than Y carbon footprint.’”
Universal Fibers’ sister company, Premiere Fibers, makes the nylon fiber used in player jerseys for the National Football League, an organization that is increasingly focused on issues of sustainability.
Since its inception in 1967, Universal Fibers has placed an emphasis on efficiency and waste reduction in its own manufacturing processes, even before they and others started talking about sustainability, said Anderson. The company uses a “solution-dyeing” process where color pigments are melted into nylon fiber rather than traditional water-dyeing methods that are more water and energy intensive.
Anderson said that the company has been recycling for decades, including using its own “pre-consumer” waste starting in the 1990s, and later adding in “post-consumer” waste, turning worn-out carpets and other materials back into fibers, in the mid 2000s.
“We were using recycled content internally and never over-promoted it,” Anderson said. “It was just the right thing to do, and it made sense from a business standpoint.”
But Universal Fiber Systems’s manufacturing of certain dyed materials, such as nylon 6,6—the highly durable fiber that stands up to wear and tear on the floor and to swipes from linebackers on the field—is less amenable than other processes to using recycled content.
The company is now looking throughout its supply chain at companies like Ascend that manufacture the nylon polymer itself, in an effort to reduce emissions.
“If you are going to be sustainable as an organization, then you have to be sustainable all the way through,” McSheehy said.
McSheehy said the delay in the initial emissions reduction effort at Ascend could likely be chalked up to Covid-19 but added that he would like to see more transparency from the company about their efforts.
“Sustainability is a journey,” McSheehy said. “There are going to be steps forward and steps sideways and hopefully not too many steps back. But sharing those renders great confidence to those on their own path to the same goals.”