Building community with recycled synthetic lumber: A new Alaskan business is helping Homer recycle more plastic
Pulling back the brush up above the tideline during a beach clean up effort in Prince William Sound, Patrick Simpson was astounded to see a kaleidoscope of shredded plastic. Growing up in Cordova, and the son of a fisherman, beach debris wasn’t new to Simpson, but seeing this tangle of tiny plastic pieces felt different.
“It’s going to sit there forever, and I don’t know what the long term effects of that are,” he recalled thinking.
As an engineer and entrepreneur, Simpson decided he wanted to find a way to help, launching a new business called Alaska Plastic Recovery.
It’s hard to avoid plastic — from food packaging to electronics, it’s everywhere. Recent research finds that as it degrades, the material breaks into tiny fragments called microplastics, which have been found in salmon and mussels, potentially harming human health. But disposing of plastics is complicated, especially in Alaska, since most of the state’s recycling needs to be transported to the Lower 48 to be processed, after which it’s often shipped abroad.
With the pollution he’d witnessed as motivation, Simpson dreamed of turning post-consumer plastics like food and drink packaging — and eventually ocean-borne plastic debris, and retired fishing nets and gear — into something useful.
“[Plastic’s] filling our landfills, it's ending up on our beaches, it's getting burned and polluting our atmosphere. We can do a better job,” Simpson said.
As the COVID-19 pandemic brought life to a virtual standstill in 2020, Simpson dedicated his newfound spare time to apply for funding to develop a novel plastic-to-lumber recycling project. It took hundreds of hours of research and eight separate proposals to different federal agencies, but Simpson eventually managed to secure $100,000 funding through an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Small Business Innovation Research program to pursue his vision.
With Alaska’s rural communities and limited road network, Simpson knew that a conventional model — collecting plastics from across the state and processing them at a central hub — would be prohibitively expensive. So he came up with a way to transport his processing facility to the pollution itself.
Working with the American Sierra Plastics company in New York to secure used equipment, Simpson created a mobile recycling facility in a moveable 53-foot trailer, which can grind, melt and form plastic into lumber on site.
Transforming plastic into building materials isn’t itself a new concept, but April Richards, who helped the EPA decide to fund Simpson’s project, said that his innovative design was perfect for Alaska, “taking what would be a waste and making it into a commodity.”
In order to garner support from the agency, Richards said that business proposals have to solve problems, while not creating new ones.
“We want these technologies to really be used and have impact,” she said, adding that Simpson’s plan held commercial promise and had qualified for an additional $400,000 funding that enabled him to acquire the equipment and start operating in Seward, Palmer and Soldotna.
Simpson’s company also offers the potential to help address plastic marine debris on remote coastlines.
Peter Murphy, the regional coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, said that cleaning up marine debris in Alaska isn’t as simple as handing out gloves and garbage bags to volunteers on a beach, and then tossing the trash into a dumpster. Debris clean up efforts might be miles from the nearest community, and many more from the road system. A lot of landfills in smaller communities can’t accommodate big influxes of debris, Murphy said, “so that can mean that you have to figure out alternate disposal solutions that can be expensive or challenging.”
Simpson hopes to be able to repackage his mobile processor into smaller 20-foot containers to reach communities off the road system and process retired fishing nets, plastic ocean debris and post-consumer plastics while there, but for now, he’s focused on building a market for his synthetic lumber.
In October, Simpson produced his first 100 samples of two-by-fours, tinted emerald green from the pipe-thread protectors he is recycling from the North Slope.
He is sending the lumber out for third-party testing soon, but said he envisions it being used for non-structural projects like decking, fence posts, picnic tables and raised garden beds. He recently gave samples to American Fast Freight, a logistics and transportation company which is interested in using the lumber as a possible substitute for the wood used to protect freight.
It currently costs Simpson $1.87 to produce one pound of lumber, and based on Home Depot prices, he plans to charge about $2 per pound — or around $30 for an eight-foot-long two-by-four.
“It's not going to be an incredibly great moneymaker,” Simpson said. “But it can break even.”
He said he needs at least 50,000 pounds of plastic to make processing in a location make sense financially.
It’s taken the support of a growing network of community organizations around the state for Simpson to transform growing stockpiles of plastic to synthetic lumber.
Work with the waste reduction group Sustainable Seward led to a connection with the Kenai Peninsula Borough transfer facility in Seward, which now collects plastic for Simpson directly. “It fiscally makes sense,” Simpson said, since they no longer have to pay to transport plastics to a central facility. He hopes to convince other communities like Soldotna and Homer to follow suit — and to store plastics for him to process on site — lowering everyone’s transport and recycling costs.
Ben Boettger of Cook Inletkeeper first heard about Simpson’s project through Sustainable Seward, and wanted to give people in the central Kenai Peninsula a chance to participate in what he calls “an exciting, new, innovative way to deal with plastic.”
Inletkeeper helped establish collection points in the Soldotna area, at The Goods Sustainable Grocery and Inletkeeper’s Community Action Studio. And starting this past fall, people in Homer now have the chance to participate too. You can drop your plastics off in the white super-sacks outside of Sustainable Wares on Ocean Drive and at the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies.
Simpson is collecting plastic Types 1, 2, 4, and 5 — which can all be mixed together, though he asks that you remove bottle caps and clean out food (especially peanut butter and ketchup).
“If you're not sure what kind of plastic it is, and it can be recycled, go ahead and throw it in anyway,” Simpson said. “We’ll figure it out.”
The Homer transfer station only accepts Type 1 screw-top bottles and Type 2 plastics, so this represents a chance to recycle more common household plastics, like certain plastic bags, yogurt cartons and clam-shell salad greens containers.
Henry Rieske, marine debris coordinator with the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, said they are filling about one super-sack per week right now, but sees this as a great opportunity going forward. They are looking for regular commuters with trucks who might be willing to transport the super-sacks of collected plastic to Soldotna, and are offering a small gas reimbursement.
Rieske’s work with marine debris clean up and educational outreach gives him a clear grasp of the pollution washing up along the beaches of Kachemak Bay. Because of the tides and currents in the bay, Rieske said litter that makes it to the area’s beaches is mostly local consumer waste — “it’s from what we in the community are doing.” That may be disconcerting, he said, but “it means that we can solve it.”
While not all of the waste that Rieske and other volunteers gather and document along the bay is plastic, he’s excited about how Simpson’s project can help expand the community’s recycling capacity and dramatically cut down on shipping plastic waste to the Lower 48 and abroad.
“Recycling staying local in Alaska is a big deal,” he said.