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Building a Business with Recycled Plastic

by | Oct 31, 2023 | Environmental, Featured, Manufacturing, News, Small Business

The Alaska Plastic Recovery team collected nearly 600,000 pounds of recycled plastic in its first year and sold around $38,000 worth of Grizzly Wood, the recycled plastic lumber end product he and his team manufacture.

Patrick Simpson

Alaska Plastic Recovery, the company behind Grizzly Wood, has made it through its first big year of work, traveling to and collecting more than 600,000 pounds of recycled plastic in eight Southcentral communities and turning it into formed-plastic lengths of recycled plastic lumber (RPL) and bricks, useful for making signposts, decking, picnic tables, benches, and retaining walls.

Restoring Pristine Beaches

Alaska Plastic Recovery is a subsidiary of PKS Consulting, Inc. Founder Patrick Simpson says the year of work has provided him with invaluable data. He set out hoping to address the issue of marine plastic debris that has washed ashore, collecting it before waves smash it from macro-plastics to much-more-difficult-to-recover microplastics.

At an October 21 presentation at Valley Community for Recycling Solutions near Palmer, he estimated between 75 million and 125 million pounds of plastic ocean waste washes up on Alaska shores each year. He wants to prevent the waste—which has been proven to be present in Alaska birds’ bodies—from getting into salmon and other marine food sources. Simpson’s roots are in the Alaska maritime culture; his father and brother are commercial fishermen. He’s a fourth-generation Alaskan who grew up in Cordova, where nearly half of all households have someone working in the fishing industry, either fishing or processing.

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He recovered 9,000 pounds of marine plastic, mostly in Prince William Sound, and hopes to expand on that. However, one of the chief lessons he learned this year was that the industrial stream of plastic waste in Alaska is a rich source of the types of plastic he can use to make his chief product, Grizzly Wood.

Innovative Idea Generates Grants, Loans

Simpson’s idea to recycle marine waste garnered investment from several sources: $600,000 from the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Small Business Innovation Research Program; a $660,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration through its Marine Debris Challenge Competition; $125,000 from the US Department of Agriculture’s Small Business Innovation Research Program; some low-interest loans that amounted to nearly another $100,000; and $50,000 from the Municipality of Anchorage’s 49th State Angel Fund. All told, Simpson raised about $1.5 million that he believes will allow him to operate over the next three years.

The funding paid for the initial investment of equipment, the 53-foot trailer it’s housed in, and the generator used to power it on-site. It’s a mobile setup, he says, so he can travel to different communities where stockpiled plastic is waiting for him to turn it into RPL.

Giving Single-Use Plastics a Longer Life

RPL, a wood alternative, is made from grinding used plasticand then heating the ground bits and injecting them into metal forms, made to match various sizes of lumber: 2x4s, 2x6s, 2x8s, 4x4s and 6x8s. After cooling, the plastic lumber is dense, durable, and immune from moisture; it can last up to fifty years. Although the colors are largely based on what kinds of plastic goes into the extruder—mixed plastics tend to come out black, for example—RPL is the same color throughout, meaning it never needs to be painted.

The plastic can come from a variety of sources: soft drink and water bottles (#1, polyethylene terephthalate, or PETE); milk jugs, cleaning agent bottles, and laundry detergent bottles, as well as shampoo and shower soap bottles (#2, high-density polyethylene, or HDPE); bottle tops, shopping bags, wrappings, and squeezable bottles (#4, low-density polyethylene or LDPE); and plastic furniture, luggage, toys, and even plastic car parts such as bumpers and external borders (#5, polypropylene, or PP).

While #2, #4, and #5 plastics make great lumber, Simpson says #1 plastic is ultimately too brittle for lumber but great for making bricks that can be used for retaining walls and other structures.

While many Alaska recycling facilities accept #1 and #2 plastic, it’s rarer for them to accept other forms of plastic—there just isn’t a market for it. But if Simpson can provide a reliable market for it, collection might be possible.

Simpson sits on the Anchorage Solid Waste Recycling Advisory Committee. At the Anchorage landfill, he says, cardboard amounts to nearly 40 percent of the incoming waste stream; plastic adds up to nearly 25 percent of the waste stream. While it’s unlikely he’ll be able to capture all of that, diverting at least a portion will reduce the amount of trash coming into the landfill, prolonging its useful life.

A Year of Learning

Simpson started producing plastic lumber in March. He traveled to eight sites around Southcentral this year, spending time in each to sort, grind, and extrude the lumber. Due in part to drying time for the hot plastic within the metal forms—which cost around $800 each—the process is not fast.

Simpson and his crew of three spent nearly a month in Soldotna; three weeks sorting and grinding the plastic and then a week making Grizzly Wood from it. His equipment can grind one and a half supersacks (that’s a heavy-duty bag that holds about 42 cubic feet of material, in this case, plastic) in eight hours, netting between 1,200 and 1,500 pounds of plastic. In the time they were there, the crew processed around 43,000 pounds of plastic.

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Next summer, he says, he will operate split shifts, with one shift grinding plastic and another shift turning it into Grizzly Wood, in hopes of speeding the process along.

In Seward, the team processed more than 31,000 pounds of plastic: Beach-collected plastic, baled plastic from cruise ships, and recycled plastic from the community.

Simpson and his team, based in Palmer, traveled to Kenai and Soldotna, Homer, Seward, Whittier, and Cordova. They also spent time in Anchorage, offering tours of their facilities and grinding up unusable municipality trash cans, turning them into Grizzly Wood.

The operating plan is simple: Communities can stockpile their recycled plastics and he will make regular visits to grind and process the plastic into lumber.

It takes about $250 in energy costs per day to run the equipment; bump that to $750 per day when employee compensation is added. It takes about $1.87 to produce one pound of Grizzly Wood; his equipment can produce about five pounds of extruded plastic each minute. He believes the market for Grizzly Wood will support sales at about $2 per foot for 2x4s, meaning he can sell a 15-foot plank for about $30. As of October, he says his crew sold about $35,000 worth of Grizzly Wood.

Tapping Industrial Waste

Alaska Plastic Recovery founder Patrick Simpson’s boot against microplastics made from waste plastic that was washed ashore and then beaten into small bits by waves. South Arm of the Bay of Isles, Knight Island, Prince William Sound, June 2021.

Patrick Simpson

Simpson says one of the surprises in this year of work was that the North Slope holds a rich stream of industrial waste that would make ideal Grizzly Wood: pipe thread protectors.

Drilling pipe shipped for use on the slope comes threaded, so pieces fit easily together. However, during travel the threads must be protected to prevent damage and ensure a smooth connection. The thread protectors are made of high-grade #2 plastic and, once onsite, they are stored, with no further intended use. Between 100,000 and 200,000 pounds of plastic a year comes from thread protectors, Simpson says, and it makes ideal Grizzly Wood.

Another unexpected industrial plastic source is in freight shipping, Simpson says. After speaking to one freight-shipping company in Anchorage, he learned that that single company collects between one and two tons of plastic a week from packaging and strapping around the loads it hauls or receives.

This year Simpson processed more than 525,000 pounds of plastic from industrial sources. He’s confident that number will increase as he establishes relationships with different shipping companies and learns of other sources of industrial plastic.

Smaller Containers, More Supersacks

Simpson says he reached out to communities in Southeast who were very interested in participating but found that his 53-foot trailer was too large to fit on ferries or barges to communities off the road system. Many of those communities struggle with the influx of garbage generated; some lack space for landfill expansion and others must barge out waste, a costly endeavor.

One of the overall goals that came from this year of learning is to get three 20-foot containers and house the processing equipment in them, which will allow him to more easily travel—he plans to travel to Sitka and Yakutat next summer.

Another issue Simpson encountered this year was the difficulty of consistently accepting post-consumer waste, or plastic coming from individuals who recycle. This year, his crew collected 58,500 pounds of post-consumer resin, or plastic.

“We had such a fantastic reception to the program, but we weren’t able to keep enough supersacks on hand to store the post-consumer [plastic],” he says.

The company has about 500 supersacks, but he says in Kenai and Soldotna alone, recyclers were filling between seven and ten sacks a week.

“I couldn’t keep enough {supersacks] there to keep the program going,” he says.

That meant the grass-roots supporters of his program were less able to contribute. Their support is important—vital to the business—and he plans to make sure that post-consumer plastic is a reliable part of his incoming stream of recycled plastic.

“We really have great people supplying us material. Some people have stored yogurt containers for years and brought them in—a six-foot stack of yogurt containers,” he says.

To maintain a consistent ability to take post-consumer waste, Simpson says he will be looking for more supersacks and he plans to invest in a baler that will crush plastic of various types into a 75 to 100-pound bale, which is easier to store and small enough that they can be easily stacked into a box truck about the size of a 14-foot U-Haul truck.

“These are the people who want to help us,” he says. “I don’t want to frustrate the market–I want them to see their product being turned into Grizzly Wood and see it being used.”

Alaska Business April 2024 cover
In This Issue
The 2024 Corporate 100
April 2024

In their company kitchens, the Corporate 100 blend wholesome ingredients with exquisite utensils to create the scrumptious ambrosia that keeps employees gratified and contented. Meet the top Alaska employers ranked by number of Alaskans on their payroll, and learn the recipe for success. This issue also includes a focus on economic development initiatives in Anchorage and Kodiak.

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