Photo courtesy of Patrick Simpson

An innovative engineer with Cordova roots is being recognized by the Alaska SeaLife Center for his work to create plastic-based lumber from marine debris with a waste recycler that can be used in remote coastal communities.

Patrick Simpson is the 2023 recipient of the SeaLife Center’s Stewardship and Sustainability Award, honoring an industry leader who demonstrates the highest commitment to the sustainability of ocean resources. Simpson is one of five people being honored with the Seward-based SeaLife Center’s 2023 Alaska Ocean Leadership Awards.

Simpson, whose company Alaska Plastic Recovery LLC is based in Anchorage, has been working for several years to develop technologies that will repurpose plastic wastes retrieved from the ocean and coastal shorelines into plastic-based lumber. His plan is for that lumber to be made in coastal communities, using a recycler that can be barged in those communities. 

Alaska Plastic Recovery is also developing heavy-duty drones to remove bags of waste on beaches, as well as marine-learning algorithms that can be used to assess the debris.

Innovative engineer Patrick Simpson has done extensive research on a variety of plastic wastes found on coastal shorelines to determine their potential use in plastic lumber. Photo by Margaret Bauman

His work includes engaging high school students to demonstrate these technologies.

“Simpson’s exciting and inventive efforts will result in cleaner beaches and oceans and reduce microplastics in our marine ecosystems,” SeaLife Center officials said while in an announcement Monday.

Simpson, who holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of California San Diego, was born and raised in Cordova and fished commercially there with his family. He moved to Anchorage in 1980, where he completed high school. Following his studies at UCSD, Simpson distinguished himself in many areas. He specialized in the application of neural networks and fuzzy systems — as well as artificial intelligence to defense-related issues in areas such as electronic intelligence radar surveillance, sonar signal identification, and various aspects of automated diagnostics.

Most of Simpson’s research efforts have focused on making improvements for those engaged in the fishing industry and the environment in which they work.

In 1992 he founded Scientific Fishery Systems in Anchorage, a small firm with a goal of developing a line of integrated sensor and information-processing products to meet the demands of the ever-changing global fishing communities.

By 2021 Simpson was focused on a new idea that would help coastal fishing communities by getting rid of mounds of plastic waste piling up on coastal shores, by making that junk that nobody wanted into building materials that could be used in those communities. The Environmental Protection Agency awarded Simpson a $100,000 grant to develop a mobile plastic waste recycler that could be deployed in Alaska’s coastal communities to produce building materials.

Simpson has tested a variety of plastic wastes for their potential for use in plastic lumber. The plastic two-by-fours he plans to produce would last about 15 to 20 years, after which they could be recycled several times.

As his research progresses, Simpson continues to spread the word about the possibilities of repurposed plastic waste with help from advocacy groups, including the Cook Inletkeeper in Homer. By getting more of that plastic waste out of the ocean and coastal shores, Simpson’s work may also contribute to the well-being of marine life. 

All those big pieces of plastic in the ocean become microplastics, and those microplastics are making their way into the food web.

Additional winners

Other recipients of the Alaska Ocean Leadership Awards announced this past week were Vera Metcalf, Sue Moore, Catherine Walker, and Mia Siebenmorgen Cresswell.

Cresswell, who is from Cordova, was honored with the Ocean Youth Award given to an Alaskan youth up to 19 years old who has displayed dedication to promoting the understanding and stewardship of the state’s oceans.

She has served as an intern for the Prince William Sound Regional Citizen’s Advisory Council’s marine invasive species monitoring program, working on the nearshore coastal ecosystem of Cordova. Cresswell has set traps to monitor for European green crab, and monitored settlement plates in the Cordova harbor for benthic invasive species as part of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s Plate Watch program. She has also interned at the Prince William Sound Science Center and the Copper River Watershed Project and served as a youth leader for a summer stewardship program.

Metcalf received the Walter J. and Ermalee Hickel Lifetime Achievement Award for her exceptional contributions to the management of Alaska’s coastal and ocean resources for over 20 years. She has served as director of the Eskimo Walrus Commission for over two decades. She has served as a commissioner on the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, on the Inuit Circumpolar Council and currently as a special advisor on Native Affairs with the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission.

Moore received the Marine Research Award given to a scientist acknowledged by peers to have made an original breakthrough contribution to a field of scientific knowledge about Alaska’s oceans. Moore has studied Arctic marine mammals and their ecosystems since 1981, with a focus on the northern Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas. Moore served as the Cetacean Program Leader and director of NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s Marine Mammal Laboratory and as a research scientist and senior scientist at NOAA’s Office of Science and Technology.

Walker received the Marine Science Outreach Award for an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to ocean literacy via formal or informal education, media, or other communications.

She is a national board-certified science teacher at Dimond High School in Anchorage, teaching marine biology/oceanography, essentials of engineering, and drone aviation.