All those orange traffic barrels can have a second life

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A new life for the ubiquitous orange traffic barrel. Image: Pixabay.

By Stephen Olschanski
Capital News Service

A Michigan company is recycling orange traffic barrels into an artificial snow surface that could combat fewer snowfalls in the future and is already turning backyards into ski slopes.

The Plainwell-based company called mSnow has found a home in at least two Michigan skiing hotspots – Mount Brighton and Crystal Mountain. Mount Brighton will showcase the product at its inaugural Fall Fest Oct. 21-22.

Whether the surface could address ski slope owners’ concerns over climate change is uncertain. Large-scale implementation of the mSnow surfaces has yet to begin and questions remain over its feasibility, said company co-owner, Luke Schrab.

The barrels, damaged by cars and beyond repair, are transformed into tiles and pieced together to make surface areas to practice skiing and snowboarding. They are used primarily by kids to practice in their backyards, but have begun to attract nationwide attention.

The average backyard setup costs between $200 and $300, Schrab said. To build a setup down a hill would cost a substantial amount. Also the surface isn’t for beginners or intermediate skiers. Larger slopes made of the surface become a bigger safety risk.

Simple falls on the surface can cause scrapes, he said. An entire slope of the surface would require more protection

“Even though a lot of areas are not installing it to be able to ski down a slope, there are little ways they use it,” Schrab said. One is mSnow’s development of tubing lanes to allow inflatable tubes to slide down slopes in the summer. Places that have instituted tubing lanes in the past include Breckenridge in Colorado and Brian Head in Utah.

Climate change could increase the demand for artificial surfaces.

But artificial surfaces are not an option in the foreseeable future as a replacement for snow as the ski industry is still alive, said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association.

Ski areas across the country have installed artificial surfaces for summer training and on a small scale at resorts but they’re not needed to replace a full slope, Berry said. “It’s not all doom and gloom in the industry.”

But large scale artificial surfaces could be useful because they don’t need much snow, Berry said.

The popularity of artificial surfaces has risen as a way to train and to combat less snow, he said.

Orange barrels are manufactured by private companies that rent them to construction companies with state  contracts. Instead of heading to the landfill, damaged barrels are bought by or given to mSnow by the companies that rent them to construction companies, Schrab said.

The barrels are cleaned, molded into tile pieces and an additive is applied to make them slippery, Schrab said.

Schrab and his brother competed across the Midwest in skiing competitions. To compete in inverted aerial events they had to train in the summer. After skiing on an artificial surface in Park City, Utah, they thought about developing their own surfaces.

“Those traffic barrels are a similar plastic to what gets used for ski surfaces,” Schrab said. “Normally, it is a polyethylene. There are other types, but that’s what the barrels are made of.”

Kids who crafted backyard practice setups from mSnow made them popular, Schrab said. Word of mouth at ski resort and trade shows prompted Mount Brighton and Crystal Mountain to pick them up.

Caberfae Peaks Ski and Golf Resort near Cadillac has implemented mSnow surfaces into its resort for liftoffs but has put more money into man-made snow operations, Caberfae general manager Pete Meyer said.

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