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Anchorage engineer is developing a way to turn ocean plastic into building material

Anchorage Engineer Patrick Simpson is developing a way to turn plastic waste into building...
Anchorage Engineer Patrick Simpson is developing a way to turn plastic waste into building materials with a portable facility.(Taylor Clark)
Published: Jul. 20, 2021 at 7:10 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - According to Ocean Conservancy and other sources, there are approximately eight million metric tons of plastic that find their way into the ocean every year. Anchorage-based engineer and entrepreneur Patrick Simpson said his very rough estimate is that 77 to 104 million pounds of that recyclable material end up on Alaska shores every year.

“That’s a very rough approximation,” Simpson said, “but let’s say I’m off by a factor of 10, so one-tenth of that. That’s seven to ten million pounds annually? Still a lot of plastic.”

Currently, he’s in the process of developing a portable plastic processing facility that would take the plastics that are polluting Alaska waterways and turn them into a usable plastic lumber building material.

He received a $100,000 grant from the EPA to do a feasibility study for the project. Simpson said he’s in the designing phase and developing a way to melt certain plastics into usable material.

It wouldn’t be quite as strong as wood, he said, but it would have many different uses.

“Conventional lumber is stiffer. It doesn’t bend as much,” Simpson said. “You find that recycled plastic lumber is not a product that’s very useful for taking loads in a building. So you end up using it for external things. Fence posts, fencing, siding, pavers, decking material, things like that.”

Simpson said that this kind of initiative isn’t new. People are always looking for unique ways to turn plastic into useful material. However, his concept is unique in that it would be a smaller-scale facility that could fit into a 40-foot shipping container and be able to move to different coastal communities.

“Every one of these other plants are large, they’re expensive, they sit in one location, and they truck everything in,” he said. “And the innovation here is can we flip that? And instead of having it where the material goes to the plant, the plant goes to the material.”

He said that would cut down on many costs, like moving the plastic from one location to the other. Simpson said the ideal development for the project in Alaska would be to put the equipment on a barge. That way the plastic could be collected and processed all in one location, further improving efficiency.

To cut back on the high costs of removing plastic from beaches, Simpson said he has the idea of contracting local fishermen and recreational boaters to remove plastic with receptacles and compensate the boaters for it.

But before that plan comes to fruition, Simpson said he has to finish the feasibility study by the fall and submit some small-scale testing on the plastic lumber and designs to fit the equipment in the shipping container.

Then, he said, the EPA would get back with whether or not they could secure more funding by around spring 2022. Then he would start working on the pilot program with two of the shipping containers, he said would probably be in Whittier or Prince William Sound.

Simpson is the son of a fisherman in Cordova, whose family has been in Alaska for more than a hundred years he said. Simpson said the project is important to him because he wants to help protect the state and its resources from the harm of leaving plastic on beaches, which eventually turn into microplastics that stick around for years.

“That stuff is going to start leeching into our food supply,” he said. “Let’s say that that gets into the salmon in our rivers and they start ingesting that. What could that mean for our food supply downstream? So I’m seeing the potential for these microplastics leeching into our food supply and causing us some considerable grief downstream with some of our other industries.”

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