Following Waste in the San Juans: A Comprehensive Update

Research by Linnea Morris and Ela Angevine, Written by Ela Angevine

When people tell you that you can do things at home to be more environmentally friendly, live more sustainable, 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 (SJTS) on San Juan, Orcas Recycling Service (ORS) on Orcas, and Lopez Solid Waste Disposal District (LSWDD) 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 (RRS) only picks up inside the town’s limits.

The town leases the SJTS on Sutton Road to San Juan County (SJC) 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 (SJS’s recycling goes to a different place than SJTS’s). However, the town does the commercial pickups of material solid waste (MSW) or garbage which 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 US (which included all of our recycling for some time) due to the contamination. Thirty percent of the 16,000,000 tons of recycling sent to China in 2016 put in their landfills, and they said enough. Although, 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—of which the US is not committed to—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.”) Still, this is the simplified version of the story.

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 (MRF) 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 (EPR) laws are big steps the local and federal government can make in terms of sustainability. They push companies to make greener products and packaging by factoring in recycling costs at the point of sale instead of externalizing costs onto waste management operators. 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.

It is estimated that 45% of the nation’s recyclable waste goes into the garbage annually, and 25% of recycled waste should have gone to the landfill, in other words, it’s contaminated (which is a predetermined concept invented by manufacturers). On the islands, we are not an exception. No one could tell us exactly what percentage of the recycling on any of the islands gets tossed in the landfill because “we haven’t done a trash audit in many years,” says Nikyta Palmasani, Education & Outreach Coordinator at LSWDD. However, we did hear repeatedly from Logan Luft at SJS, Pete Moe at ORS, and Troy Lautenbach at SJTS that, according to what they have heard from Recology, “we have some of the cleanest materials in the state when it comes in” (Moe). Moe estimates that 60-75% of recycling in general gets recycled, separated out by the MRFs, but also that the islands have a higher percentage. Lautenbach says something similar: “they love our material … I would say [the percentage getting recycled] is in the high 90’s.”

I find this hard to believe. Not one person at Spring Street International School could tell me where their recycling goes (besides the secretary who manages that) or what can be put in the bin. The reason being lack of knowledge or interest and lack of faith, frankly, in the lists provided by the facilities because of rumors that go around claiming some of the things on the lists are not recyclable. For example, Tetra Paks (like paper milk or juice cartons with the foil lining) are only recyclable when there is a factory that has the technology to separate the layers of paper, foil, and plastic. This is why not many companies list them (or cartons, the other common name) as recyclable (while Recology does, they do not tell the public where they send each recyclable material—we must take their word that it is being recycled). SJS includes cartons, but Luft claims to not see them normally in his recycling stream. When pressed, he admitted that perhaps the paper is “recyclable with air quotes” and the plastic liner maybe not. SJS sends their recycling to Woodinville where cartons are not listed as recyclable.

There are other discrepancies in the lists between islands, such as plastic bags that SJTS includes when they are not on Recology’s list because they gum up the sorting machines. At the same time, I can believe what Moe and Luft claim because Recology compares cities like Seattle that recycled 456,458 tons in 2017 according to their Waste prevention and Recycling Report with Orcas, Lopez, and San Juan that recycled about 1,722 tons in 2017 (this is an estimate because I could only find exact numbers for recycled tonnage for Lopez and Orcas). I chose the year 2017 because that was the year I could find accurate information for both Seattle and the islands, however, it should be noted that this was the year of “China Sword.” After, some prices went up, and the tonnage of recycling for both ORS and Seattle went down a considerable amount.

Not only are we possibly (and I say possibly because it seems to me that in this industry nothing is certain and everything changes on the daily) putting items in the recycling that shouldn’t be there, but we are not following proper procedures. To quote Nikyta, “rule number one: it’s gotta be clean! … Dirty equals garbage. Dirty equals landfill. I don’t care if it’s a sweater, or a can, or a bottle, or a piece of cardboard. If it’s got stuff on it, it’s garbage.”

While it is every individual’s responsibility to recycle to the best of their ability, it is not black and white. We cannot simply blame our own “wish-cycling” just like we cannot place the blame on the people who take our waste while we look the other way—and they do at a certain level. Many people who work in the waste industry are not really sure what is recyclable because it is changing constantly according to the market. They take what the buyers say is recyclable without second-guessing because, by law, they do not need to.

The state of Washington and the nation are doing us a great disservice, the national government for that matter. Law does not require MRFs to report where they are selling recyclables and who is buying them, although some do on common courtesy. Sorting facilities are only required to sell it to buyers who claim it is being recycled, and some of these buyers are underdeveloped countries that get paid (in some cases like plastics that do not have a good market) to take trash recycling. Is this really trying our best? Because I think we can do better. Much like Palmasani and Moe, who have zero-waste goals for their prospective facilities, say it is also up to the companies that sell materials and create waste to educate the consumer and willingly take part in EPR programs. It is up to the government, local, state, and federal, to put EPR policies in place so that companies do take initiative and action. Mark Ingman derives from his experience as the SJC Solid Works Public Waste Program Coordinator that:

Corporations benefit from us perpetuating the sense that we are ourselves to blame, and I more recently realized they have created this self-blame situation for us. We need to free ourselves from being the main problems—it’s my experience that shame doesn’t motivate people—and it’s really a situation of organizing/lobbying to make corporations pay and have an incentive to be sustainable. When organized, we are in the driver’s seat.

Linnea and I are deeply saddened by the lack of cohesion and disregard for where our waste goes that some members of this community have. A lot of us have given up, and we understand that. It took a year to slowly collect this information because no one could give us straight answers. We struggled to gain and maintain contact with our sources, and some did not bother to respond at all when we reached out. However, we appreciate all the help our sources and other resources have given us, and we empathize with the struggle. It is reasonable to say that no one in the industry could possibly know everything due to its complexities. Many are already extremely busy trying to keep up and work with the system, but maybe it is time we worked outside the system.

Everyone always tells me that youth can make a difference, that people want to hear from youth, not the older generations who have the jobs. There is a fundamental difference between waiting for youth to make a difference and helping youth make the changes we all want to see because, really, we do all want to see these positive changes. Contrary to the beliefs of some, becoming a zero waste community and separating recycling to decrease contamination are realistic goals.

The San Juan Islands are working un-unified with the laws that have been put in place in the system that exists rather than pushing to change it, but no matter how one looks at it, it simply is not sustainable. For example, we need to stop accepting tourists and residents who do not recycle properly with the excuse that it is not easy enough. This mindset is flawed, and it lets us get away with not having responsibility: out of sight out of mind. But that is not the reality. It is our responsibility to make sure that people coming to our home treat it the way we do and the way we treat them—with respect and dignity. When you go on vacation do you litter and think it is logical to excuse it just because you don’t live there? No. It is expected that if one is a responsible citizen and traveler that they respect the rules of each country—recycling and MSW are no different.

While ideally we work to improve and change the system, we still need to work with what we have in the meantime. At home you can find out what is recyclable, clean your recycling, reduce the packaging you buy and use, and become more active in the policy making scene. Educating yourself is very important because if you do not know what needs to be done, how can you do it?

See all the San Juan County waste tracking information in one place on the Following Waste in the San Juans Flow Chart.

Ask questions and learn more from Ela and Linnea at a community conversation hosted by Friends via Zoom on July 1. Click here for details and to register.

It should be noted that the information in this article is based on research done in 2021 and may not be applicable in the near future.

We live in such a pivotal time. Future generations are depending on us to protect and restore what will be their environment. We support the Friends because they tackle the issues that really make a big difference in our local environment, while also squeezing maximum value out of every dollar in their budget.

Ken and Mariann Carrasco

members, Orcas Island