Reviewing regional recyclables

Living on an island, you get used to slow internet, minimal cell reception and travel being limited by the ferry schedule. It should come as no surprise that the islands have to handle solid waste management differently as well.

Each of the three largest islands in the San Juans has their own waste management authority. On San Juan Island, a Mount Vernon company called Lautenbach Recycling manages the transfer station. The non-profit organization Orcas Recycling Services runs the transfer station on Orcas and Lopez is operated by a property-tax-supported solid waste district.

“We probably have the weirdest county in the state,” said ORS Executive Director Pete Moe. “Each one is different. It’s actually working fairly well.”

In 2011, San Juan County decided to discontinue its operation of the islands’ solid waste transfer facilities. The county was losing money on administering the solid waste removal in the islands, and when residents voted against a solid waste parcel fee in November 2011.


Lopez Solid Waste Disposal District assumed full responsibility for operating the Lopez solid waste facility in January 2013. In May 2012, a petition containing 962 verified signatures supported the solid waste district’s formation.

Now, the residents of Lopez must vote yearly on a levy to continue the transfer station’s operation. A state law requires the district’s operational and maintenance levy be voted on annually. Lopez also operates a free reusable goods exchange known as Take it or Leave It, which takes in 4,300 pounds of donated goods each week.

LSWDD takes its recyclable goods to Skagit River Steel and Recycling in Burlington, Washington, and its garbage to Skagit County Transfer Station. In 2015, Lopez sent 465.9 tons of garbage off island, the rest was recyclables at 366 tons.

“About 36 percent of all materials leaving the island are clean recyclables that have been sorted, compacted and baled,” said District Manager Paul Andersson. “Only 2 percent of recyclables received at the dump arrive unsorted. That means Lopezians are self-separating 98 percent of their recyclables into 15 different categories of material.”

Lopez is the only station in the islands that requires its patrons to self-separate their recyclable items. It does accept one paper bag of co-mingled recycling at a time (thus the 2 percent). Lopez also is the only station with a baler, which allows it to consolidate its recyclables into bales of like materials.


Orcas Recycling Services, a nonprofit organization, took over the operation of the Orcas Transfer Station following a unanimous vote from the San Juan County Council in November 2012. ORS was previously responsible for managing The Exchange, a reuse facility that was located at the transfer station. When the county pulled out of solid waste, ORS was quick to assume responsibility for the station.

In February 2013, a fire started after hours and destroyed The Exchange building. This did not stop ORS from taking over the operation of the transfer station as it sought funding to rebuild. Since the land is still owned by the county, in 2016, the San Juan County Council agreed to construct a building shell to house The Exchange. A groundbreaking celebration was held on Wednesday, April 5.

ORS ships its co-mingled recycling to Waste Management’s Cascade Recycling Facility in Woodinville, Washington. The garbage that ORS gathers at the transfer station is sent to the Roosevelt Landfill in southeastern Washington.

“Orcas does as much garbage in August as Lopez does all year,” said Moe. “I think we do more than San Juan Island, too. Because of the fact we get the other islands’ waste.”

San Juan Sanitation brings the solid waste it collects on Orcas, Shaw, Decatur and Blakely to the Orcas transfer station. In 2015, ORS shipped 4,826.08 tons of garbage and 579.78 tons of recycling co-mingled off island. Additional recyclable material is hauled off island as well such as oils, electronics, antifreeze and more.

According to Moe, ORS diverted 12.8 percent of recyclables away from landfills in 2015. He hopes that with the completion of The Exchange building, that number will be increased by 10 percent.

Moe said that islanders can help by cleaning their recyclables. That will save 20-30 percent of recyclables from being wasted, he added. Food contamination accounts for a large portion of recyclable waste.

“I’ve seen 10 tons of recycling be diverted to the landfill because of 3-4 garbage bags of rotten food being thrown in incorrectly,” said Moe.

San Juan

After granting ORS control of the Orcas transfer station, the county council looked to the recommendations of the San Juan Island solid waste selection committee for operating the transfer station on San Juan. The county council permitted Lautenbach Industries of Mt. Vernon to operate the facility on Sutton Road, which is owned by the Town of Friday Harbor and leased by the county.

Lautenbach takes its recycling to several locations throughout the state. There are two Material Recovery Facilities in Seattle that it transports commingled recyclables to. Oil and antifreeze are recycled by a vendor in Anacortes, metal goes to various recyclers in Seattle or Tacoma and wood goes to Lautenbach’s own facility in Skagit County.

The San Juan Transfer station exported 4,452.05 tons of garbage and 699.75 tons of co-mingled recycling off island. It also hauls additional recyclable material was hauled off island such as oils, wood, metals and more. The transfer station does not have a reuse facility like Lopez does and Orcas soon will. The island’s reuse facility, Community Treasures, is operated separately and at a different location.

What’s in the islands’ recycling future?

“We just submitted an application for a federal grant to help fund a potential food waste recycling program,” said Lautenbach. “This is still in the feasibility stage, but we are excited about the potential.”

Orcas is also wanting to venture into the realm of food waste recycling, but it has a few goals to reach before it gets to that point. The first is getting The Exchange open. The next project on the docket for ORS is in coordination with the county in installing a building to collect and store household hazardous waste.

As it exists now, removing household hazardous waste from the island is a difficult process. It is illegal to take such materials onto the ferries so the county gets state funding to host a one-day household hazardous waste removal event on the most populated islands. A storage facility on Orcas would allow disposal of such materials once or twice a month so that residents don’t have to hold on to the hazardous waste until the yearly event.