For this local group, things are picking up

By David Hampshire

Caption: In this 2007 photo, the Trash Masters borrowed a page from the San Juan Island history books to declare war against litter. Fifteen years later, they’re still fighting. Photo courtesy of David Dehlendorf.

Full disclosure: I’m going to be talking trash here, but not the kind dished out by cocky cornerbacks on the football field.

I once saw a sign on the side of a garbage truck that said: “There’s no such thing as ‘away’. When you throw something away, it has to go somewhere.”

If you live on San Juan Island, “somewhere” usually involves the San Juan Transfer Station on Sutton Road which, by the way, gets 4.9 stars on the Internet from local reviewers such as these three:

“Great place for breakfast on a hot summer day,” said one.

“They always give my dog a treat,” said another.

“My favorite part of the week,” said a third.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This isn’t a story about the stuff dropped off at the dump by our conscientious friends and neighbors. This is about the litter that appears mysteriously on our beaches and the sides of our roads.

If you’re a member of the San Juan Island group Trash Masters, you know it well. On the third Thursday of every month, 24 dedicated citizens armed with grabbers and trash bags spend 1-2 hours picking up foreign objects from the shoulders of Roche Harbor Road, Rouleau Road and parts of West Valley Road and Sutton Road. On the Friday after collection day, a volunteer with a pickup truck drives along the roads, gathers up the trash bags and takes them to the transfer station.

Since Trash Masters started in 2005, they have collected about 20,000 pounds of litter, according to David Dehlendorf, who coordinates group activities.

What kind of litter? Well, they haven’t come across any bodies (of the human variety). And the dead deer they leave behind for county crews to collect. However, there can be treasure among all that trash. David’s wife Susie once came across a chainsaw on the side of the road, he told me. And he found an envelope with a hundred dollars in it.dfs

For a couple of years he kept a monthly tally of the amount collected. He said the totals ranged from a low of 80 pounds to a high of 320. Most months were somewhere in the 100s.

One summer the group got together at the Dehlendorfs’ house and, as you might expect, the talk eventually turned to trash. “We all seemed motivated to talk about it: ‘OK, what have we found? What do we see? Who is throwing this out? Why are they doing this? What’s the origin of this stuff?’”

If you’re starting to think that these folks are a little obsessive, you might have a point. One month they decided to examine exactly what they had collected. So they spread out a tarp at the transfer station and dumped out all the bags.

“And we sorted it: cigarette butts, beer cans, soft-drink bottles, cardboard, you name it. And we actually counted, like, how many cigarette butts there were,” he laughed. “Oh my God, it was crazy.”

Occasionally the Trash Masters become trash trackers. Dehlendorf recalled one day when he spotted a trail of Styrofoam “popcorn” on Rouleau Road. He followed the trail as it led to the intersection with Roche Harbor Road and then continued toward Friday Harbor.

“And it got worse and worse and worse,” he said. “There was so much of it, it couldn’t have been just out of the bottom of a pickup truck. Something [else] had to be going on.”

He followed the trail to the intersection with Sutton Road where it turned toward the transfer station. There he found the culprit: a man with a truck towing a flatbed trailer carrying a commercial dumpster.

“I probably broke all the rules but I parked and I went over to this guy and I said, ‘What’s going on?’ He was dumping a lot of things including this popcorn.”

The man said he worked for a disposal company hired to haul trash from a new home. He claimed he had no clue that he had been decorating the ditches with a frosting of Styrofoam. But Dehlendorf wanted more than remorse. He called the manager of the disposal company and told him it was their responsibility to make sure their loads were properly covered.

“The long and the short of it is, he got right back to me and he said, ‘We’re sending a crew over there on Thursday and we’re going to clean it up.’ And they came over [and] they cleaned up the whole seven miles. … And I felt, this is great! This is citizen action!”

Trash Masters continued to find items that had obviously escaped from trucks en route to the dump. So they launched a local “cover the load” campaign. Browne’s Home Center and Ace Hardware agreed to offer a discount on mesh cargo nets sold to people who said they wanted to participate in the program.

Group members also organized the San Juan Island Litter Prevention Coalition, engaged students from the high school, and wrote “Trash Talk,” a series of articles for this newspaper. And they participate every year in the Great Islands Clean-Up, which also involves groups from Orcas and Lopez islands.

In the past 17 years, more than 50 people have patrolled island roads in Trash Masters’ orange vests. A few of the original group are still active. However, they’re getting long in the tooth. Others have retired and some are now scouring the shoulders beyond the Pearly Gates. Dehlendorf, who just turned 80, now limits his role to sending out monthly reminders and looking for new recruits. As a matter of fact, he recruited me to write this story.

“We’re an aging population,” he said. “Some of us have moved on … or can’t do it anymore. We need to have younger people, and finding younger people is always a challenge with jobs and families and stuff like that.”

If you still have a spring in your step and would like to contribute 1-2 hours a month to an enterprise that is always picking up, you can reach David Dehlendorf at or 206- 669-2478.