Trash to treasure: Plastics lab a new way to recycle

A man and a woman stand near a table
Artist Carl Zachmann and waste educator Cedar Walters assemble a metal mold to fill with plastic last month in Fergus Falls, Minn.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Much of the plastic dumped in recycling containers in Otter Tail County, Minn., is shipped away to be turned into plastic lumber.

But in a small room tucked in the corner of the recycling facility, Carl Zachmann is making something entirely different. He holds a small mold for making tin soldiers while a machine pumps it full of pink gooey plastic.

A man holds a metal mold.
A metal mold used to make a plastic soldier at the recycling workshop.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

"I am practicing to make a Napoleon in pink. It's a good color on him," said Zachmann, prying apart the mold to show off the pink general.

The Lakes Area Mix Workspace is a small-scale version of a large plastic reuse operation. The open source machines were purchased from a company in the Netherlands called Precious Plastics.

The $13,000 cost was funded by Otter Tail, Pope and Douglas counties, the West Central Initiative and Springboard for the Arts.

There's a shredder to chop the plastic into small pieces, and machines to heat it to about 400 degrees, so it can be formed by molds or shaped freehand as the melted plastic flows from an extrusion machine like hot toothpaste from a tube.

"Anybody can do it. I mean, if you can use a hot glue gun, you can use a plastics lab," said Zachmann, a Fergus Falls metal sculptor. "And we have, so far I think, the most complete one in the entire Midwest, and it's here in my own little town!"

a man wearing a mask leans forward
Carl Zachmann leans on the handle of an injection machine to force hot plastic into a mold last month in Fergus Falls.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

"Because it is a little unique and it's the first one of its kind in Minnesota for sure, it might draw people from all over the state and possibly even from surrounding states,” said Otter Tail County waste educator Cedar Walters. “And so we're hoping that it becomes a kind of a regional community and people can come visit and see what it's all about."

A group of Twin Cities artists recently toured the facility and hope to create a similar space, said Walters.

Barbara Honer is a painter and fiber artist from Pelican Rapids, who's intrigued by plastic. She makes polished jewelry and signs, and is experimenting with free form bowls. She’s found plastic to be a challenging medium to work with as she blends colors and different types of plastic waste.

“You put it in the hopper, in the injector and you don't really know how it's going to come out,” she said. “So it's always exciting to see what the end product looks like. And sometimes I don't know exactly what I'm going to do with it until it comes out. And sometimes it tells me what to do with it.”

a woman holds a broken shard of plastic
Barbara Honer holds a broken piece of a plastic sled she plans to melt and reuse last month in Fergus Falls.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Honer wants to use her creations to inspire other people to try recycling their plastic.

"What I'm looking for is a movement that can be contagious, where other people in the community can see what we're doing and think ‘well I can do that, too. I can make my own paving stones for my garden and I can recycle my own plastic waste into something,’” said Honer.

"Plastic's going to be around for a 1,000 years, so why not make lumber, or furniture, or paving stones."

The Otter Tail County waste educator, Walters, said the pandemic was a challenging time to start a public workspace, but she and a handful of local artists spent the past few months working out the bugs in the process and she's now scheduling training classes for people who want to use the makerspace.

There is a steep learning curve, said Walters, and they've developed techniques through trial and error. Some plastics melt better than others. Some create a smooth surface while others are textured. Recycled plastic totes in bright colors are a favorite, and plastic bags create a marbled effect when mixed with other plastic.

"It does change how you view your waste,” said Walters. “That's really the power of this project — getting people to notice what is happening with their waste. It changes your perspective and you start to think, 'Oh, what could that be?' instead of just viewing it as disposable."

a blob of melted pink plastic
Artist Barbara Honer prepares to pull a blob of melted plastic from an extrusion machine.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Experimenting with melted plastic and molds has changed how Zachmann recycles, and what he saves from the recycling bin.

"I have a pile of broken sleds, from a sledding hill in Minneapolis, because they come in fun colors,” he said.

"Things like pharmacy pill bottles that are that clear orange color, and it's transparent and has that golden hue, all my friends are saving all their medication bottles for me now, so that way I can bring them here and shred them and turn them into things."

Zachmann used his metal working skills to build an oven that can hold larger molds so people can make flower pots or stepping stones.

Walters has more molds on order, and said people can buy or build their own molds. She's excited to see artists and entrepreneurs use the plastics lab as an idea generator.

"There's lots of things people could do that would be very marketable,” she said. “So this is showing people what's possible, showing them the model, giving them those resources, and hopefully some people will jump off with it from there."

jewelry laid on a table
Jewelry made from recycled plastic at the Lakes Area Mix Workspace in Fergus Falls.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The small amount of plastic used in this space won’t make a dent in plastic recycled in Otter Tail County. Most will still be shipped away to be reused, but this small room in the corner the recycling center might just spark some creative new uses for plastic waste.