How Breckenridge Turned a Sled Problem into Precious Plastic
Breckenridge, Colorado, best known for its world-famous ski resort, had a plastics problem. Every year visitors flock to this charming historic mining town to enjoy schussing and sledding down the slopes. What do they leave behind? Sleds. Tons of them. Cheap red, blue, green, and orange plastic sleds started to pile up in a shed in Carter Park, a few blocks away from downtown. Tourists who fly in for a few days of snowy fun buy these saucers and sliders and can’t take them home. They are left behind for others to use, but over time end up broken and discarded. Eventually, this heap of plastic trash weighed in at over 2,000 pounds.
How Breck Create is Solving the Problem
In 2020, a local resident approached Breck Create, an arm of the city that promotes arts, culture, and creative experiences, with a proposed solution: Precious Plastics. This alternative recycling system was started in the Netherlands in 2013 by design student Dave Hakkens. The program provides communities around the globe with access to open-source hardware, software, and other resources to turn trash into treasure.
After a few years of planning and fundraising, Breckenridge opened the doors to its own Precious Plastics studio. It’s located in a refurbished historic horse stable, and the hayloft is now packed with scrapped sleds and other plastic. This mixed-use workspace is where the magic happens: residents and visitors create art from unwanted plastic.
A sign outside the door reads “Bring us your plastic waste. Make it Precious.” Once a week the workshop is open for community members to drop off unwanted items like laundry soap containers, broken toys, flowerpots, and even lawn chairs. Pieces that can be recycled through the city’s recycling program are not accepted, since Breck Create doesn’t want to cut into the revenue earned through traditional recycling. The donated goods are then sorted by type and color. Reusable sustainable Breckenridge shopping bags hang from the wall filled with yellow margarine tubs, amber medicine bottles, green dishwasher soap tubs, and red Solo drink cups.
Next to the inventory, you’ll be greeted by the Wolverine, an industrial shredded that chews up everything from yogurt containers and egg cartons to larger items like sleds. Some bigger pieces need to be cut into a manageable size first. Colossus will press the plastic, Mystique will inject it into molds, and Cyclops is responsible for extruding the recycling material. Drea Edwards, the center’s Arts Education Manager, christened the machines with x-men names after her love of comics.
“We try to repurpose anything that usable. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” says Nicole Sletta, Head Studio Technician who runs the project. She recently rehomed some donated plastic trash cans. The shredding work is done by volunteers and Sletta, who says the process of grinding up garbage into colorful bits is rewarding. The resulting remnants are stored in thirty stacked bins along the walls. Snippets of color resemble crayon shavings in various hues: grassy green, shiny silver, and red so vibrant it’s begging to jump onto a canvas. Who knew trash could be so beautiful?
Creative Opportunities for the Public
Breck Create offers weekly classes to the public. Attendees learn how to safely use the injection machine to make small objects. Philly cream cheese containers are turned into earrings or carabiners; combs and coasters can be fashioned from broken sleds and milk jugs. Once a student has mastered the skills safely, they are qualified to sign up for open studio time and explore more independently.
Sletta and other staff at the Precious Plastics Project have been flexing their creative muscles too, and work to perfect the various systems involved in melting, pressing, and shaping the recycled plastic into new products.
“It’s really a cool system and it’s fun to experiment,” says Sletta, showing off a red and yellow prototype sled she made from discarded ones. She’s tried it out on the mountain and wants to make some adjustments to improve performance. Other projects in the works include a small piece of “fabric” made from recycled plastic that is melted, extruded into “yarn”, and then woven together. Even the loom is made from salvaged containers. On a larger scale, this technique could be used to make a bathmat or area rug.
A display case in the workshop holds some creative experiments, including a snowflake, and an elegant blue and green basket. The woven container, which could be used as a fruit bowl, was a joint project between Sletta and former Breck Create artist in residence Mary Robinson.
Building for the Future
“The main goal is to solve a dead end in our plastic recycling system that commercial recycling can’t deal with,” Sletta explains. “The plan is to get a system where we can press it into sheets so it can be more easily repurposed.” Shredded plastic can be melted and pressed into plywood in the workshop’s sheet press machine. Using heat and pressure, the extruder makes scraps into lumber which could be used to build houses of the future.
This process is already a reality for some Precious Plastics workshops in other locations. Sletta hands me a blue two-by-four, complete with the same heft and knots as real lumber. I hold the board and think how cool it would be to come back in five years and find a house built with bright broken sled walls and clear mayo jar windows.
But for now, the workshop is focused on teaching classes, making better sleds out of the broken ones, and keeping material out of the landfill. So far, approximately 4,100 pounds of plastic have been recycled, and broken sleds account for over 2,400 pounds of the repurposed materials. That’s a successful summit to reach in any community.
Kirsten Harrington has been a freelance food and travel writer for over 12 years, chronicling adventures in the US and China. Her work has appeared in WhereTraveler, The Seattle Times, Edible Orlando, The Beijinger and numerous other publications. When she’s not writing, you can find her scoping out new adventures, hiking or enjoying a meal with her family. Follow Kirsten on her blog.