Proctor game company gives plastic waste new life

The Replay Workshop is a new experiment by Atlas Games aimed at finding a way to reuse production materials.

Two people stand in front of a sign which reads "Replay Workshop" and hold up plastic items.
Jenae Floerke and John Nephew of Atlas Games hold up items formed out of recycled plastic at the Replay Workshop, a new experiment to reduce plastic waste.
Teri Cadeau / Duluth News Tribune
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PROCTOR — A game publishing company is looking into new ways to reduce their waste and reuse packaging and other plastic materials.

Since he started Atlas Games nearly 30 years ago, co-owner John Nephew has found himself frustrated with the amount of waste that goes into the production process. Replay Workshop, Atlas's new plastic recycling experiment, was born out of that frustration.

"I've always been looking for ways that we can reduce our environmental impact," Nephew said. "If I have to throw away old games, because there's no demand for them, I'd rather figure out a way to turn them into new games where there is a demand."

Increased shipping prices and delays in cargo arrivals because of the COVID-19 pandemic have affected supply chains, businesses and consumers across the world. Local game businesses have struggled to keep their inventories stocked this year without breaking the bank.

Earlier in 2022, Nephew's warehouse manager pitched the idea of getting a cardboard perforator, a machine that takes corrugated cardboard and makes accordion-style cuts. This turns a cardboard box into webbing that can be wrapped around items and used for packing material. Nephew said investing in the machine was expensive, but it's greatly reduced the amount of biodegradable packing peanuts the company would usually purchase.

"Plus, I figured that there were other companies around who have dumpsters full of corrugated cardboard, so we could help them out and get more packing material at the same time," Nephew said.


Plastic items at the Replay Workshop
Orange pill bottles and political yard signs will likely be melted down and turned into new game pieces as part of Atlas Games's Replay Workshop experiment.
Teri Cadeau / Duluth News Tribune

After this initial successful experiment, Nephew began thinking of further possibilities. He'd already started experimenting with recycling plastics at home by melting things down in his oven and trying to create new objects. He wanted to continue to experiment, but knew he had a tough audience for this pitch: his wife, Michelle, co-owner of Atlas Games.

"I had some concerns about my wife's reaction if I said I was looking to start inviting people over to give me their trash," Nephew said. "But I gave her the pitch, showed her some videos by Precious Plastics videos and videos of plastic in the sea. And I reminded her we already have a market for plastic items and have a lot of connections, so she agreed."

The Replay Workshop, which is still in its experimental phase, is set up in a former boxing gym on Third Avenue. Nephew recently received a conditional use permit from the Proctor City Council for the facility.

Woody Eblom, of Esko, uses a roll of plastic wrap to secure a pallet of games at the Atlas Games warehouse July 30, 2021, in Proctor.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

Most of the space is dedicated to sorting and determining the types of plastic in each item. The primary types of plastics Nephew plans to use include LDPE (low-density polyethylene, often found in plastic wraps), HDPE (high-density polyethylene, often found in sturdier items such as grocery bags, laundry bins, political yard signs) and PP (polypropylene, often used to make items such as plastic twine).

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To figure out what types of plastic are in each new item he finds, he has a series of liquid tests. He'll cut off a chunk of plastic and place it water, alcohol and ethylene to see if it will float or sink. That helps him determine the type of plastic involved.

"This also helps us weed out items that are made of PVC, which we don't want to use because it can be toxic to work with," Nephew said. "And you do get to a point where you start to see an item and you can usually guess what it's made of, but it's nice to check. I have been surprised sometimes."

Three eight-sided dice sit in a hand.
John Nephew holds up three eight-sided dice he has made from recycled plastic and etched numbers into as part of his experiments with Project Replay.
Teri Cadeau / Duluth News Tribune

Nephew's also been experimenting with creating batches of eight-sided dice, some more successful than others. The main issue is ensuring that the faces of the dice don't warp inward.

He's also trying to make a new special edition of a plastic mountain used in his company's game "Dice Miner." He's tried several kinds of molds and materials to figure out the right combination.


Project Replay Mountains
A series of plastic, concrete and recycled material mountains used in the game "Dice Miner" inside the Replay Workshop.
Teri Cadeau / Duluth News Tribune

"The original game has a cardboard mountain you have to assemble and when we did a Kickstarter for it, there was a limited edition plastic version," Nephew said. "And those went very, very well and quickly, so we know there's a market for it. So if we can figure out a handcrafted, locally made mountain, that'll definitely appeal."

Nephew hopes if the experiment is successful, other companies will begin to find ways to reuse plastic waste.

"People sometimes ask me if I'm worried someone else will come along and take this idea," Nephew said. "No, actually — that's like the whole idea. People should be repurposing locally and start their own plastics recycling all over the world. I'd love to see more people do something like this."

Teri Cadeau is a general assignment and neighborhood reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Originally from the Iron Range, Cadeau has worked for several community newspapers in the Duluth area for eight years including: The Duluth Budgeteer News, Western Weekly, Weekly Observer, Lake County News-Chronicle and occasionally, the Cloquet Pine Journal. When not working, she's an avid reader and crafter.
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