Anchorage engineer plans to recycle ocean garbage into plastic lumber

The cost of lumber and other building materials is sky-high, and it’s even more expensive when shipped to small coastal communities in Alaska.

Patrick Simpson of Anchorage has an idea that might help. He wants to create artificial lumber from an abundant material no one wants: Plastic ocean debris.

Simpson, an engineer, began by considering the global blight of waste plastic in the marine environment.

“As I thought about it, well, why can’t we convert it into something that locally could be usable?” Simpson said.

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Man in bar. gray hair.
Patrick K. Simpson is an engineer who won an EPA grant for a project to turn plastic waste into lumber. He’s designing it for use in coastal Alaska communities. (Patrick Simpson)

The EPA has given Patrick Simpson a $100,000 grant to develop his idea of a mobile plastic-waste recycler that could deploy to coastal communities in Alaska and produce building materials.

“If we’re feasible, and we demonstrate that this concept has merit, then in Phase 2 they increase the amount of money and duration of the contract, and you’re able to build a pilot, and actually demonstrate that it works,” he said.

Simpson is a fisherman’s son who grew up in Cordova. He expected to become a commercial fisherman, too. But the ocean didn’t agree with him.

“If you have seasickness, you’re not going to be a very good fisherman. It just doesn’t work out. So I ended up going off to school,” he said. “I got a degree in engineering at the University of California in San Diego.”

In the ‘90s he founded a company that made fish-counting sonar. After that, he developed an unmanned underwater vehicle. Then Simpson set his sights on fish waste, with a company called Alaska Marine Nutrition.

“I went into Cook Inlet and I collected all the fish heads from all the processors and converted them into a food grade fish oil and sold that in bulk,” he said.

He sold that company to his major customer, a Canadian supplements firm.

And then one day he heard a presentation about “ghost nets”: Abandoned fishing nets that float in the ocean, entangling marine mammals and killing fish. 

The title of the talk was “Recycling Fishnets.” Simpson’s engineer mind went to work, wondering how the company found, retrieved and turned nets into something useful. 

“Well, that got me started,” he said.

Simpson wants to build a waste recycler that would fit in a 40-foot container or two for easy transport to coastal communities. His current plan is to find material collected in community beach cleanups and intercept it before it goes to a landfill.

But plastics recycling is tricky. Plastic isn’t one thing. The kind used in milk jugs is different than plastic film or rope, and each have particular properties. Simpson said he can use two major types.

“I’m able to take the polyethylene and polypropylene and I’m melting those,” he said. “And then I’m shredding net nylon and using it as a reinforcement — the fibers — to create a recycled plastic lumber. And then I’m going to sell that locally.”

This lumber isn’t suitable for, say, framing a house. Plastic is too bendy for that. But Simpson said it could be made into decking, fencing or roof tiles.

“The technology is not horribly difficult,” he said. “It’s been proven, and the innovation is the use of the net combined with the melted plastic to create an extruded recycled plastic lumber, and the packaging into this mobile platform.”

He imagines starting lumber production in his hometown, Cordova, which already has coastal clean-up campaigns that bring tons of plastic ashore.

Simpson also has other innovations in mind. He wants to use drones to find which shores have the most plastic debris. That would help direct future beach clean-ups, he said, and locate materials Simpson hopes to put to good use.

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Liz Ruskin covers Alaska issues in Washington as the network's D.C. correspondent. She was born in Anchorage and is a West High grad. She has degrees from the University of Washington and the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia. She previously worked at the Homer News, the Anchorage Daily News and the Washington bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. She also freelanced for several years from the U.K. and Japan, in print and radio. Liz has been APRN’s Washington, D.C. correspondent since October 2013. She's @lruskin on Twitter. She welcomes your news tips at lruskin (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  | About Liz

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