The Great Pacific Garbage Patch covers an estimated surface area of 617,763 square miles, an area twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France. San Juan County consists of 174 square miles of land— and its residents recycle.
Yet, it’s hard to assess the overall effectiveness of consumer recycling in protecting the environment.
In San Juan County, where each populated island has a different set of challenges for waste management, it’s even more complicated. Every piece of garbage and recycling that leaves the community has to be transported to the mainland, costing time, fuel and ferry space.
Approaches vary from island to island, as residents and governing bodies assess their own situations in the light of changing local, and global, priorities. A new state law now under consideration would also change the recycling landscape.
“Yes, it is definitely worth recycling,” Katie Fleming, solid waste coordinator for San Juan County, responded when asked about the effectiveness of commingled recycling and rumors that much of gets dumped along with garbage due to contamination.
With both people and high-tech machines sorting through mixed recycling, only 10% is lost due to contamination, Fleming said she and members of the county’s Solid Waste Advisory Committee were told in a recent visit to Recology. The South Seattle materials recovery facility is where most of San Juan County’s mixed recycling goes.
Not everyone agrees with that assertion, although the amount of recycled material is still significant.
San Juan islander Steve Ulvi, who’s been active on the ad hoc Waste Reduction Guild, said he “really questions the 10%. That would be extremely successful.” Pete Moe, executive director of the Exchange/Orcas Recycling Services, was also skeptical, suggesting the number was probably closer to 30% of the mixed recyclables getting tossed.
More than 10,800 tons of garbage and 3,430 tons of recyclable materials are processed annually in San Juan County. (That’s the 2016 number from the county’s Solid Waste Management Plan). This works out to about five pounds per person per day, similar to the national average. However, the expense of hauling garbage and recyclables by ferry to the mainland not only drives costs up for islanders but adds to climate change through additional fuel use.
Efforts to improve are underway. “Surely we can do better than having the most expensive recycling in the state,” Ulvi said.
Garbage from Orcas and Lopez islands is transported by truck to Burlington, where full containers are lifted from truck trailers and set on flat rail cars. They then become property of Allied Waste/Republic Services, one of the biggest garbage companies in the country. The trains travel about 350 miles over the mountains to the 2,545-acre Roosevelt Landfill in Klickitat County, near the Columbia River. Trash from San Juan Island is hauled 230 miles south to Headquarters Landfill in Cowlitz County.
Mixed recycling is hauled by truck for separation at Recology in Seattle. Materials that are sorted in the islands are generally taken to Skagit Steel and Recycling in Burlington.
In 2012, San Juan County chose to cease operating its own solid waste facilities in the islands and to contract with commercial carriers and other entities to provide these services. It was a controversial decision because it gave “local” control to an outside corporation. It also made the switch to commingled recycling, which was a new way of doing things in the islands.
For many who had been sorting recyclables for years, it was difficult to fathom how it could be as efficient as people sorting their own recyclables at home. In general, commingled recycling is easier for participants and more efficient to collect, with drawbacks of increased contamination and waste.
Lopez Island residents responded by forming their own Solid Waste Disposal District (LSWDD) in 2012, making Lopez the only island in the San Juans to offer free recycling of clean, sorted materials. They also operate a well-maintained “Take It or Leave It” site for reusable items, staffed by dedicated volunteers. LSWDD has its own trucks that haul both garbage and recycling to the mainland. And, they have a baler that condenses the sorted recyclables before transporting them to the mainland.
A LSWDD levy was approved in November 2022 by 77.5% of voters, showing the pride that Lopezians have in their “dump.”
On Orcas, a nonprofit group created the re-use store The Exchange in 1981, and in 2012 they created Orcas Recycling Services, a nonprofit organization that contracts with the county to manage the Orcas transfer station.
Orcas now has a glass crusher, is planning to get a baler and has begun plans for a composting facility. The island no longer has to pay for the hauling of heavy glass in the mixed recyclables, which Moe said is by far the heaviest component. Glass is ground to various grades, down to the size of sand. Keeping the material on Orcas Island for re-use in construction and landscaping “reduces tonnage and creates a huge savings in money and carbon.” Moe said.
Moe praised the Lopez facility, with its baler, volunteers and thorough sorting, saying it probably succeeds in getting 99% of its recyclables collected properly. The biggest difference between Orcas and Lopez, he pointed out, is scale. “The volume of garbage and recycling that Lopez hauls all year is comparable to what Orcas does during the month of August.” [Update: corrected comparison, Feb. 3, 2023]
On San Juan Island, the town of Friday Harbor owns the property where the transfer station is and contracts with Lautenbach Recycling to manage the transfer station in partnership with San Juan Sanitation and San Juan County.
San Juan Sanitation, whose home office is in Lynden, operates the curbside pickup collection program throughout the county for both garbage and mixed recycling. Friday Harbor has its own trucks, which also drop off waste at the transfer station. Both San Juan Sanitation and the Town of Friday Harbor empty their smaller trucks into 53-foot-long trailers at the San Juan Island Station, which Lautenbach then drives onto the ferry and hauls to Cowlitz County.
The China effect
Fleming said the next big change in the county’s recycling programs came in 2017. For almost two decades, China had accepted more than 50% of the world’s exported recyclables. Under new regulations — known as National Sword 2017 and Blue Sky 2018 — China stopped accepting categories of low-grade and contaminated items.
The new restrictions caused worldwide impacts. The Washington State Department of Ecology said in an issue paper that “the West Coast and Washington state are particularly impacted due to the reliance on Chinese markets because of the close proximity, relatively low cost and ease of shipping recyclable materials to China.”
Fleming said many people had been unaware that local waste was being shipped to China. The new policies triggered a sudden search for new markets for recyclables, but they also made clear that shipping millions of tons of trash around the world is not environmentally responsible or sustainable.
Since then, fluctuating market conditions for recycling have sometimes caused confusion for consumers and challengers for processors.
Plastics are the most complicated problem as there are so many different types. Different materials are accepted at different locations and there is confusion among the public as to what is recyclable. Plastic bags are not allowed in commingled recycling, yet there are often recycling symbols on plastic packaging such as Amazon shipping bags. Dave Zapalac, facilities manager at the Lopez site, explained that the symbol of the chasing arrow is misused; it is meant to help identify what type of plastic was used in manufacturing and does not mean the item is recyclable.
Reusing materials on the islands and reducing transportation costs for the items that must leave are complementary priorities. Both the Lopez SWDD and Orcas Recycling Services have mission statements that state a goal of “working towards zero waste.”
Orcas is in a good situation, Moe explained, as their facility is not surrounded by neighbors, so they “don’t have NIMBY [‘not in my backyard’] problems.” Therefore, they can have a glass crusher, which can be noisy, and a composting facility, now in the planning stages, without raising concerns.
Lopez does not have a glass crusher, explained Zapalac, citing noise to neighbors as the reason. He said they do process glass by placing it in an inert gravel pit that is being reclaimed.
“Composting, glass crushing and baling would create a beautiful solution” on San Juan Island as well, Ulvi said, though the current site is limited by its close proximity to a residential neighborhood. Ulvi estimates that removing food waste and glass from the system would reduce tonnage of transported material by about 50%.
“For the most part, all of recycling falls on the individual,” Ulvi said. He prefers more of a top-down approach, saying “I think the county needs to step up in a more forceful way.” He pointed out that many if not most tourist accommodations do not provide recycling containers. This includes Roche Harbor Resort, the largest resort on San Juan Island, Ulvi said. There is no incentive for them to recycle, so they don’t.
“We’d love to recycle, but it’s not practical and it would cost more” said Brent Snow, general manager of Roche Harbor Resort and former member of the county’s Solid Waste Advisory Committee. Snow explained that the retail store does recycle cardboard, sending about six bales a week back with the grocery truck. “If it was mandatory, like it is in Seattle, of course we would do it,” Snow said. Roche Harbor sends about 250 tons of mixed waste per year to the San Juan Transfer Station.
The county’s 207-page Solid Waste and Moderate-Risk Waste Management Plan is being reviewed and amended this year by the Solid Waste Advisory Committee. Programs such as training, or equipment for recycling or composting, must be identified in the plan to qualify for grant funding or other financial assistance from government agencies.
Shift with WRAP?
The Legislature is considering a bill that would shift the burden away from consumers. SB 5154 / HB 1131, for improving Washington’s solid waste management outcomes and also known as the Washington Recycling and Packaging (WRAP) Act, is the number one priority of Zero Waste Washington.
The act would ban Styrofoam food service products, coolers and packing peanuts as of June 1. It would require restaurants and food service businesses to provide straws, utensils, condiment packages and beverage cup lids only on request or in self-serve bins.
It also would require that plastic beverage containers be made of post-consumer recycled plastic, from a minimum of 15% by weight in 2023 to 50% by 2031.
Perhaps most important to the islands, the act includes a “bottle bill” section. If passed, consumers will pay a 10-cent fee on beverage bottles and cans and then redeem the 10 cents at drop locations.
The bill is scheduled for executive sessions this week in the Senate Committee on Environment, Energy and Technology and the House Committee on Environment and Energy.
Demonstrating that San Juan County’s attitude towards trash has changed in recent years, solid waste management now falls within San Juan County’s Environmental Stewardship Department, established in 2021, rather than Public Works. “Leading the community to a zero-waste future” is its mission. While progress is being made, there’s still a long way to go.
— Reported by Nancy DeVaux
Read more: “Managing waste: what’s in your bins?” Salish Current, May 18, 2022