Anchorage man demonstrates technology to recycle ocean plastic waste

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 engineer from Anchorage who wants to do something about it.

“My estimate is that 75 million to 125 million pounds of plastic accumulates on our beaches every year,” Simpson said. “And, at best, we get maybe 500,000 pounds. So we have a lot of work to do and I saw an opportunity there.

The opportunity, Simpson referred to, was a chance to design a portable machine that could grind plastic into small pieces, heat it and force it through a mold to turn plastic waste into a product Simpson calls the plastic wood.

Simpson explained that the technology already existed, but he received a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to scale it down so the recycling machine could be transported to coastal communities where plastic is piling up.

“Store the plastics in the community, process them into something useful – in this case, recycled plastic lumber – leave the lumber there to be sold and used in the local community, then transfer the processing to the next community,” Simpson said. “And I think you could do six, maybe eight communities a year where you could deal with plastic in that way.”

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

Recently, Simpson took a demo-sized recycling unit to Dimond High School to show students how the technology works. Dimond, designated an Ocean Guardian School by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, already focuses on recycling and watershed protection. In the fall, Dimond students picked up trash on a beach outside Whittier.

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

“With every trash they found, they were so excited to make a difference,” Walker said. “Which I think is really important right now, with student mental health, focusing on solutions and letting them have impact and feel empowered.”

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

“Young people, they think outside the box so well, and so you get some really creative ideas about what we can do with plastics and how to deal with them,” Simpson said.

Simpson said he hopes more people will start to see plastic as a reusable resource and not just something to throw away.