Lessons from the front: What our trash is telling us

  • Mon Sep 23rd, 2019 10:20am
  • News

by Toby Cooper

Special to the Sounder

Ginger Moore peers out her window into the half-light of a cold spring morning.

An avalanche of detail ripples through her mind. Bags and grabbers: Check. Vests: Check. Signs: Nancy has those. Pastries and coffee for everyone? Oh, oh, double-check the pastry count. In a flash, she is off to the first rendezvous at West Sound Hall.

Welcome to the Great Islands Clean Up.

Moore and co-leader Nancy Shafer are no ordinary volunteers. They are generals in a small army which is, at this moment, poised for an invasion in an all-out war on trash deplorably ditched all over Orcas Island. By that same afternoon, they will have delivered a small mountain of bulging bags of trash to the temporary outpost of Orcas Recycling Services at the Village Green.To see a video of the day, go here: https://youtu.be/Ga6LRfqhLZc

A job well done, and just in time to start planning for the next one!

“It’s our living room,” says Moore, not hiding the pride. “We make it fun. And when you go down those clean roads the next morning, it makes you feel wonderful!”

Lesson #1: In war, send your best!

The clean up is now a six-year tradition in San Juan County. Community spirit, pride and roll-up-the-sleeves eco-activism rarely gets better than this.

Since 2014, islanders have turned out in force to pick up — annually — a ton or more of discarded stuff on Orcas alone. They glean it from roadsides, ditches, wooded glens, beaches and the occasional embarrassing back yard. They port it back to town in the trunks of their cars, mounded on pickup beds, and balanced on the backs of wobbly bicycles. But pack it they do, to collection points where recyclables are sorted out and the rest is sent to landfill where it should have been sent in the first place.

The multi-year GICU stats for Orcas Island speak volumes. On average, some 85 red safety vest-wearing volunteers fan out across the island, crinkly black Hefty Bags in hand, to cover over 30 miles of littered terrain, ultimately retrieving just north of 2000 pounds of junk, all in the span of one April Saturday.

Since 2016, the GICU has become semiannual by sponsoring a September date in addition to April. In fact, the next one takes place on Sept. 28 on all islands.

“Even drizzly Septembers are no match for Ginger,” boasts ORS Executive Director Pete Moe.

Lesson #2: We win battles. Can we win the war?

The GICU is born. Organized cleanup efforts first popped up at Roche Harbor when a group of friends decided to repurpose their morning walk, finding new trash almost every day. In 2014, Kira Bradshaw, a waitress at Roses, launched her own clean-up on Orcas, enlisting ORS. Lopez and Shaw soon got on board, and presto, the county-wide GICU was born.

Next, San Juan County got involved when Solid Waste Manager Mark Herrenkohl helped to centralize the event through Public Works, and provided funding through a “Litter Clean Up” grant from the Washington Department of Ecology. Overnight, there were campaign dollars. ORS board chair Tim Blanchard credits the county funding for helping to create a successful concept with all the hallmarks of an integrated campaign.

“The real credit goes to the hundreds of community volunteers who do the real work,” he adds.

Lesson #3: Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.

Trash talks. We listen.

For decades, the U.S. waste management industry took for granted that China would accept endless shiploads of U.S. recyclables as a source of raw materials for manufacturing. But in 2018, China simply shut that once-dependable door. Why? Contamination, in part, because U.S. trash handlers encouraged “co-mingled recycling” as the sloppy standard for American household behavior.

“We have to do better locally,” says Moe, noting that it has become a “race against time,” as recycling systems across the U.S. are collapsing and recyclables are being diverted to landfill. Needed is massive investment in domestic manufacturing that uses recyclables in new and innovative ways.

ORS is doing its part, currently raising funds to enable higher-value recyclables to be compressed into bales for more efficient transport and sale.

Moe and Blanchard cite another low-tech but illustrative example.

“Glass currently has no value. … zero,” says Pete. “But if crushed into sand to industrial tolerances, that ‘zero’ value immediately becomes positive.”

Orcas generates about 140 tons of glass in its trash each year, all of which is shipped off-island at great cost.

“Whether it goes for recycling or landfill, we still pay,” says Blanchard. “But if we acquire an industrial 2-stage glass crusher that renders glass into sand, local contractors may use 100% of that material on Orcas.”

Lesson #4: A war of innovation is a war we can win!