What do San Juan islanders do with their trash? | KUOW News and Information

What do San Juan islanders do with their trash?

Aug 22, 2017

When writer Knute Berger was a kid in the 1960s, vacationing on Shaw Island, his family had a creative way of dumping some of their trash.

“We’d take the cans and bottles, put them in our rowboat, row out into the middle of San Juan Channel and dump it overboard,” Berger said. “It was sort of justified in terms of saying we’re creating habitats for sea creatures, you know, places for crabs and barnacles to live.”  

They also used a pellet gun.

“We would take the bottles and we’d put them in the water, and we’d shoot them from the boat," he said. "Really terrible if you think of all these lead pellets sinking to the bottom of the Salish sea. We were told this was the ecological thing to do.”

The San Juans have come a long way since those days of vigilante waste disposal. Today there are transfer stations on most of the larger islands.

On Orcas, the largest of the San Juans, the transfer station processed over 4,000 tons of garbage in 2016. Here's how it works:

From the transfer station, the garbage goes onto a truck.

That truck heads to the ferry dock, boards the Anacortes-bound ferry and then drives to a rail yard where it drops off the trash.

A train takes the trash 300 miles to a huge dump in Roosevelt, a town in southeastern Washington off the Columbia River.

A dock near Olga, on Orcas Island.
Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

This process of getting rid of garbage in the San Juan Islands is the most expensive in the state.

On smaller islands, where there is no ferry service, disposing garbage is even more complicated.

Mark Herrenkohl, the solid waste program administrator for San Juan County, said it’s because these islands are so remote.

“The only way to get off and on is by your private boat or plane,” he said. “It makes it a little more challenging. And so I think you become more efficient in how you handle garbage, recyclables and household hazardous waste.”

Waldron Island is one of the smaller islands in the San Juans. It’s off the grid, and residents rely mostly on solar power. But that creates lots of hazardous waste.

Herrenkohl recently organized a waste collection on Waldron Island, and they removed almost 2,000 pounds of solar batteries.

“These batteries are very large and very heavy,” he said. “Trying to get them off the island by private boat is ridiculous.”

So San Juan County stepped in and helped. But for the most part, residents have to handle their trash on their own.

Rheanna Bensel, who grew up on a farm on Waldron Island, gave this advice: “The key on Waldron is making sure your garbage doesn’t smell.”

Jacob Turner, 32, shovels months of garbage out of the back of his military truck on the tipping floor of the Orcas Island transfer station.
Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Her family strategized how they managed their household waste: “It’s all about washing everything, and being really careful about what you’re putting in the garbage bag, so that garbage bag, it may be heavy and unwieldy, but it isn’t absolutely disgusting,” Bensel said.

Often they would save up their garbage for an entire year and make a single garbage trip.

They’d drive it about a mile and a half down to the county dock, walk down a ramp ...

“Then onto the boat, and then the two-hour boat ride to Friday Harbor. And then up the ramp in Friday Harbor. And into my parents’ truck. And then to the transfer station on San Juan.”

From there — garbage truck, ferry, train — well, you know the rest. All the way to the dump in Roosevelt.

That's why, when Bensel got married on Waldron about a year ago, waste disposal was top of mind.

“We made the very conscious choice to buy all the beer in kegs,” she said. “We didn’t use keg cups, we actually got glasses, but they were the wedding favors, and we convinced people to take them home with them.”

Bensel lives in Seattle now. Dealing with her garbage is easier now, but she can't shake her island ways. 

“I find myself at work, opening the garbage and sorting the garbage, because people put the wrong thing in the wrong bin,” she said. “It gives you a bit of a compulsion there that is hard to get rid of.”

Back on Orcas Island, they’re also coming up with inventive ways to cut back on waste.

One solution involves the Orcas transfer station. There’s a section of it called The Exchange, where you can pick up or drop off used items.

Said Pete Moe, executive director of The Exchange: “Sometimes you really need to get something and you can’t go to the mainland for it. So you can come to The Exchange and find an equivalent that would solve your problem.”

The Exchange burned down in 2013, but the community raised over $250,000 thousand dollars to help bring it back. It will reopen in the fall.

Moe said The Exchange resonates with the community.

“I have in my backyard a greenhouse that I’ve built out of all shower doors,” he said. “There’s tons of little sheds and cabins all over Orcas that people have built exclusively from materials at The Exchange.”

Moe grew philosophical.

“When you start getting involved with garbage, you realize this is the real end of all things,” he said. “Everything that doesn’t have a place eventually ends up in the landfill, and we’re this one step before the landfill.”

Moe said that being on an island makes people more aware of the waste they produce.

“That feeling of having water surrounding you,” he said, “it’s like a psychological trick almost to make you consider more how you’re impacting your surroundings.”

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