Opinion

Our trash: Where does it go, how does it get there? | Guest Column

From left, County Pollution Prevention Specialist Brian Rader and Gerard Post van der Burg of Islands Paper & Supply Company with the first shipment of paper delivered under a new agreement. San Juan County’s conversion to paper with a 40 percent recycled content. - Submitted photo
From left, County Pollution Prevention Specialist Brian Rader and Gerard Post van der Burg of Islands Paper & Supply Company with the first shipment of paper delivered under a new agreement. San Juan County’s conversion to paper with a 40 percent recycled content.
— image credit: Submitted photo

We do all we can. We try to reduce, we try to reuse, we are diligent about recycling, but we still have trash.

Have you ever wondered what happens to our trash? Well, wonder no more!

The solid waste that is generated in San Juan County is shipped more than 350 miles to the Columbia Ridge Landfill, owned by Waste Management Company, in Arlington, Ore. To get an idea of what it takes to transport our trash all the way to Arlington, let’s follow one piece of trash, for instance a Styrofoam clamshell take-out container, on its way to the landfill.

The journey for our clamshell begins when you (or a local waste hauler) dump it onto the tipping floor at the transfer station.

Transfer station employees then push your trash into the trailer (aka the “intermodal container”) below the tipping floor.

County transfer station employees compact the waste in the trailer to make shipping as efficient as possible.

When the trailer is full, Cimarron Trucking out of Anacortes hauls it onto the ferry for the trip to the mainland and drives it down to Seattle where it is loaded onto a railcar.

Travelling by train, our Styrofoam clamshell container completes the approximately 350-mile trip and arrives at the landfill in Arlington, Ore.

At the Columbia Ridge facility, the containers are unloaded from the trains and loaded back onto trucks.

Trucks transport your trash to specific areas of the landfill for dumping.

At the disposal point, the truck backs up to a “tipper,” where the trailer is detached from the truck. Then, the entire trailer (filled with our trash) is tipped up on end, and all our island trash slides into the landfill.

Compactors, large bulldozers with special wheels designed to compact the waste pile, spread the trash around and condense it to efficiently pack into the landfill. This is the final resting place for our peripatetic Styrofoam clamshell.

In 2008, San Juan County sent 12,590 tons — more than 25 million pounds — of garbage to Arlington, Ore.

Since Styrofoam does not biodegrade, our clamshell container will likely still be intact, buried in the landfill, many years from now.

OK. So now we know about solid waste, but what about hazardous waste?

San Juan County contracts with a company called Clean Harbors Environmental Services to transport and dispose of the hazardous waste that we generate. Hazardous waste that is collected in San Juan County at the Hazardous Waste Round-Up collection events cannot travel on the passenger ferries due to Washington Department of Transportation rules.

Once this material is collected and safely packaged by Public Works staff and the Clean Harbors crew, it travels via private transport barge over to the mainland. From there, our hazardous waste is transported to one of several facilities operated by Clean Harbors for disposal. Some of our hazardous waste is shipped to Aragonite, Utah for incineration. Additional hazardous materials are shipped all the way to El Dorado, Ark., for incineration and/or energy recovery. In 2008, 27.9 tons — more than 55,000 pounds — of hazardous waste were collected in San Juan County for safe disposal.

So, what can we do to ship less waste? The answer is simple, the execution is difficult: generate less waste. Be careful what you buy. Pressure manufacturers and suppliers to minimize packaging. Take advantage of the reuse opportunities on the islands. Start your own backyard composting operation. Recycle more aggressively.

Using “zero waste” and personal responsibility as guiding principles, can we significantly reduce the amount of waste we generate here?

— Brian Rader is pollution prevention specialist for San Juan County. Contact him at 370-7581 or e-mail brianr@sanjuanco.com

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