by Ela Angevine
Spring Street School graduate
When people tell you that you can do things at home to be more environmentally friendly, live more sustainably, recycling is one of the first things that comes up, right? They say, “Recycling. It’s easy.” Well, I’m here to tell you, to console you, that it is not easy. If you feel frustrated by our system not only globally, but also on the San Juan Islands, you are not alone.
Spring Street Garbage Patrol — the environmental club founded by myself and Linnea Morris — researched the journey of our recycling on the three largest of the San Juan Islands. The compilation of information comes from the websites each island’s facility operates, interviews with employees and managers of all the transfer stations, and speaking with locals who work in tandem with the waste business. If you live on Lopez, Orcas, or San Juan this important information pertains to YOU!
Linnea and I were not prepared for what turned out to be a frustrating research journey. We had no appreciation for the complexity of waste management in general, let alone on remote islands. We started with the idea that there are five waste facilities and with the notion that we could separate recycling and not focus on the trash. Needless to say, we were wrong. There are three transfer stations: San Juan Transfer Station on San Juan, Orcas Recycling Service on Orcas and Lopez Solid Waste Disposal District on Lopez; there is one hauler: San Juan Sanitation (on Orcas, servicing all the islands); and, to top it off, on San Juan the town’s Refuse and Recycling Service only picks up inside the town’s limits.
The town leases the SJTS on Sutton Road to San Juan County, which in turn has a contract with Lautenbach Industries, a company based in Mount Vernon. Friday Harbor’s RRS has a contract with SJTS apart from the county’s (this is why waste pickups are cheaper in town), yet SJS picks up the recycling (only) from a few big businesses in Friday Harbor because the town, which owns the garbage trucks that do curbside pickups, doesn’t have the equipment to do commercial pickups of recycling. However, the town does the commercial pickups of material solid waste or garbage that goes to SJTS. On San Juan both the town’s trucks and SJS’s trucks drop off MSW at SJTS which then goes to Cowlitz County Landfill.
The more research one does on recycling, the more confusing it becomes. What constitutes as recycling at one facility might not be accepted on another island even though it is “recyclable.” This is because what’s “recyclable” really depends on where it is sent or, in other words, who is buying the material. A lot has changed in the past 10 years, starting with the leasing of the county-run transfer station — on the town of Friday Harbor’s land — in 2011 which led to Lautenbach Industries becoming the operator, to the more recent “China Sword” where China banned almost all recycling coming from the U.S. (which included all of our recycling for some time) due to the contamination. Many of you might remember that we did not stop recycling. This is because our transfer stations quickly found new buyers, and these buyers were renting huge warehouses to store the recycling in until they could find places to send the separated materials. Malaysia became the “new” China until this February when the Basel Convention made it illegal to ship plastic numbers 1-7 through international waters. (As of right now, the San Juan County operators have committed to only taking numbers 1s, 2s, and 5s because they are said to be the most “recyclable.”)
Going back a step, all of the recycling in the San Juan Islands is commingled — all except Lopez’s, that is, which gets separated by the customers and volunteers. Because it is commingled, it must be sent to Material Recovery Facilities, which sort it (in our case either Waste Management Woodinville or Recology in Seattle). In between and around the two aforementioned major events, ORS took over the contract for management of the Orcas Transfer station from the county (2012); The Exchange — the thrift house that is part of ORS — was rebuilt after it burned down in 2013; LSWDD started the ReMakery; and ORS has plans to start crushing glass into sand for construction, etc. that would take glass from all the islands. LSWDD also crushes glass to fills a gravel pit as part of a Lopez Sand and Gravel’s DOE reclamation program.
Each material that is separated out of the commingled recycling stream or that is separated by hand at a waste facility is sent to a different place or to a company that takes multiple separated and baled (in some cases) items — places like Skagit Steel and Recycling that take aluminum, steel and cardboard separated at ORS or other separated products like specific plastics and paper from LSWDD. Other examples include Ecycling WA which keeps electronics out of the landfills and is among quite a few state-funded product stewardship programs, car tires which go to Les Schwab preventing more of the rubber chemicals from pollution and killing our salmon, or motor and antifreeze which get filtered then recycled in Seattle (in the case of ORS). These programs and Extended Producer Responsibility laws are big steps the local and federal government can make in terms of sustainability. Without product stewardship, local governments are left with much of the cost for which there is no real funding. Not to mention that these laws hold companies that make non-recyclable products accountable.
See all this information in one place on the Following Waste in the San Juans Flow Chart: https://sanjuans.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Following-SJC-Waste-Flow-Chart.png
If you’d like to ask questions and learn more, join us at community conversation on July 1 at 6:30 p.m. hosted by Friends of the San Juans via Zoom. For details and to register, visit: https://sanjuans.org/upcoming-events.
Research by Linnea Morris and Ela Angevine.