Anchorage engineer plans to recycle ocean garbage into plastic lumber

Good News Notes:

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.

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…..

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