Anchorage man demonstrates technology to recycle plastic ocean waste

Published: Oct. 25, 2022 at 5:05 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Plastic waste is a global problem that Alaska shares, especially when it ends up in the ocean and washes up on local beaches. Patrick Simpson is an Anchorage engineer who wants to do something about it.

“By my estimation, 75 to 125 million pounds of plastic each year is accumulating on our beaches,” Simpson said. “And, at best, we are getting maybe 500,000 pounds of it. So we’ve just got a lot of work to do, and I saw it as an opportunity.”

The opportunity, Simpson referenced, was a chance to design a portable machine that could grind down plastic into tiny pieces, heat it and force it through a mold to turn plastic waste into a product Simpson calls plastic lumber.

Simpson explained the technology already existed, but he received an Environmental Protection Agency grant to scale it down so the recycling machine could be taken to coastal communities where plastic is accumulating.

“Stockpile the plastics at the community, turn it into something useful — in this case recycled plastic lumber — leave the lumber there to be sold and used in the local community, and then move the processing to the next community,” Simpson said. “And I think you could do six, maybe eight communities a year where you could process plastic in that fashion.”

In January, Simpson received an additional $400,000 grant from the EPA to begin a pilot program to make sure the portable technology works. But Simpson said reducing plastic waste will take more than a recycling effort: it’s also a mindset that plastic doesn’t have to be thrown away.

Recently Simpson took a demonstration-sized recycling unit to Dimond High School to show students how the technology works. Dimond, designated as an Ocean Guardian School by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, already has a focus on recycling and protecting water sheds. In the fall, Dimond students picked up trash from a beach outside of Whittier.

Teacher Cat Walker said her students were eager to do their part and learn about recycling.

“With each piece of trash they found they were so excited to make a difference,” Walker said. “Which I think is really important right now, with mental health for students, focusing on solutions and letting them make an impact and feel powerful.”

Simpson demonstrated the process and showed students a finished piece of plastic lumber made from the larger recycling machine that is currently in Palmer. He said he was impressed with their questions.

“The young people, they just think outside the box so well, and so you get some really creative ideas about what we can do about plastics and how to handle it,” Simpson said.

Simpson said he’s hopeful that more people will begin to think about plastic as a re-usable resource and not just something to be thrown away.