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Waste to wood: Plastic recycling program plans expansion to Soldotna

Super sacks of plastic behind The Goods sustainable grocery store in Soldotna.
Riley Board
Super sacks of plastic behind The Goods sustainable grocery store in Soldotna.

Since this summer, the Kenai Peninsula has had a new way to recycle its plastics.

Engineer Patrick Simpson collects used plastics from Seward, Soldotna and Homer to keep them out of the ocean — and to turn them into recycled lumber.

The plastic is collected and stored in large bags called ‘super sacks’, which hold about 75 pounds of plastic each. The super sacks are emptied into a grinder, where the plastic is ground down into smaller pieces. Then it’s melted down and formed into recycled lumber of a variety of sizes.

Just this week, Simpson produced his first pieces of lumber.

The operation is housed in a 53-foot trailer. In the first two days of production, he created 15 pieces of lumber in a variety of sizes, which were made from roughly 300 pounds of recycled plastic.

“It takes a lot of plastic to make a 2x4, but there’s a lot of plastic in the world,” Simpson said.

Simpson won a highly competitive grant from the EPA last year to convert plastic waste into recycled lumber through the Small Business Innovation Research Program. The project is currently based out of Seward, where Simpson is stockpiling plastics at the Seward Marine Industrial Complex.

Simpson has an initial buyer for the lumber, Anchorage-based freighting company American Fast Freight. The company will use the lumber to hold freight in place on the back of a trailer, where recycled lumber is a better alternative, because it is not prone to transporting pests like real wood, and it does not degrade as quickly outside.

The lumber created through this process is intended for outdoor use, like building a deck, or industrial work. Simpson said it holds up well in Alaska’s wet, coastal climate.

“If you just talk about plastic lumber versus traditional lumber, there’s like a three to one difference in lifespan,” he said.

Simpson gets his plastic from two main sources: public collection, and donations from industrial corporations. Much of the plastic used in this project comes from thread protectors, devices commonly used on the North Slope. Hilcorp has sent 180,000 pounds of thread protectors — made of a desirable, high quality plastic — to Simpson.

The rest of the plastic comes from communities. Those in the Kenai-Soldotna area can participate in upcycling their plastic waste with the help of local nonprofit Cook Inletkeeper, which works with Simpson to collect plastic on the inlet-side of the peninsula and deliver it to him.

There are two collection locations in Soldotna — one at the Cook Inletkeeper community action studio on the Kenai Spur Highway, and one at the sustainable grocery store The Goods on Kalifornsky Beach Road. There is also collection in Homer.

For the project, Simpson collects plastic types 1, 2, 4 and 5. They don’t need to be sorted by type.

Ben Boettger, energy organizer at Cook Inletkeeper, said the Soldotna collection program has been a success. Every two weeks, they collect around eight to 10 super sacks of plastic waste to deliver to Simpson.

Boettger said the program has been great for the community, people have been excited to participate, and projects like this one that manage the flow of plastic ocean waste are a major priority for Cook Inletkeeper stakeholders.

Looking forward, one of Simpson’s goals for the project is to create a mobile device that would process the plastic in order to limit freighting costs and deal with Alaska’s remoteness.

“In Alaska — and I was born and raised in Cordova, so I’m very familiar with how remote Alaska can be — communities can be collecting this plastic, but moving that plastic from the community to somewhere else to be converted into something else can be very cost prohibitive,” he said.

Simpson’s solution is to stockpile recycled plastics in different communities around Alaska, and bring in the equipment to convert it a couple times a year. And, he has his sights set on the Kenai-Soldotna area as the next place to start stockpiling recycled plastics. He’s on the lookout for a storage site, maybe off of Kalifornsky Beach Road, to keep the plastics.

“Once I find a location, then the next ask would be, well, we’d like to get more people involved in the recycling program and get more plastics on that lot so that we can get as much as we possibly can for creating more recycled plastic lumber,” he said.

Simpson currently has stockpiles in Seward and Palmer, but he’s also hoping to stockpile plastics in other places around the peninsula, including Homer and Ninilchik.

Next Thursday, in partnership with Cook Inletkeeper and local nonprofit ReGroup, Kenai Peninsula College will host an event honoring the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act as part of its KPC showcase lecture series. The event will include a screening of the 2016 documentary “A Plastic Ocean” about the consequences of ocean pollution, and after the screening, Simpson will discuss the recycled lumber project. The event is at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 27.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.
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